DMV: Department of Motor…Voting?        

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The recent news out of Pennsylvania that 289 Adarians are registered to vote has the state’s elections officials red-faced. Unless you’re a sci-fi fan, you can be forgiven for not knowing that Adarians are main characters in a series of books related to the “Star Wars” franchise: a “species of bipedal humanoids from the planet Adari.” Adarians also happen to be a registered political party in Pennsylvania (one of nearly 100 certified political parties in the state) comprised of bipedal human voters. But how many Adarians are there…really?

Turns out, the answer is a lot fewer than 289. A humorous if concerning investigation by the Philadelphia Daily News revealed that dozens of previously registered Democrats and Republicans have been re-registered as Adarians. The culprit appears to be PennDOT – the state’s equivalent of our DMV – which is tasked with implementing Pennsylvania’s “Motor Voter” program. As the News reports, “the mistakes are likely the result of alphabetical happenstance and human error [“Adarian” comes first in the party affiliation list], either on the voter’s part or on that of the PennDOT photo technicians who processed the applications.”

The story got me to thinking about California’s own “Motor Voter” program outlined in a piece of legislation (AB 1461) that sits on the Governor’s desk.

The bill, which will start automatic voter registration for all California citizens when they get their driver’s license starting next June, casts a spotlight on an agency that appears unprepared to take on the challenge – at least in the coming year. And while much attention has been paid over the last year to improving California’s voter participation, aside from a public complaint filed by the ACLU earlier this year, the DMV has received precious little consideration relative to the significant role it’s mandated to play on the issue.

This is not news for the Secretary of State’s office. As a state senator, Secretary Padilla, requested a State Auditor’s report on the spending of federal funds by then-Secretary Deborah Bowen’s agency. That audit, pleadingly titled, “Office of the Secretary of State: It Must Do More to Ensure Funds Provided Under the Federal Help America Vote Act [HAVA] Are Spent Effectively” was issued just about two years ago, and is one of the most damning study of state government performance I’ve ever read.

Washington provided over $300 million to California under HAVA, part of which was designated to support easier voter registration under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The state audit inspected the efforts of a number of California DMV locations to register California voters as they applied for driver’s licenses. NVRA prescribes that personal information needed for both drivers license and voter registration (name, address, Social Security number, etc.) be entered only once to create both the license and voter registration.  But according to the auditors, “when we visited DMV offices in the Sacramento area, we noted that the voter registration form was attached to the driver’s license application and that it requested duplicate information.”

Despite these problems of inconsistent, and incorrect, application by the DMV, AB 1461 places new, technological demands on the DMV. Data entered and (as in the case of PennDOT) sometimes re-entered by human hands is prone to error, and while the agency is struggling to improve its use of technology, recent events give one caution that the DMV can handle the effective and accurate transmittal of data to the Secretary of State’s office.

Less than three years ago, the Los Angeles Times revealed that after $135 million investment had been made in a “technology overhaul” around “registering vehicles and issuing driver’s licenses,” the project was scrapped for being “dogged by delays and faulty computer coding.” This debacle joins a series of less severe problems involving computer-generated delays in licensing and registrations.

The gauntlet thrown (rightly, I might add) by the Secretary of State onto DMV’s front steps through AB 1461 also coincides with the largest overhaul of the state’s voter rolls in California history. The long-awaited implementation of VoteCal which will combine county voting rolls into a single statewide database in compliance with federal regulation has recently begun with completion scheduled for next summer. VoteCal is intended to bring much greater authenticity to a voter roll, currently estimated to contain over one million out of date voter files.

A possible further complication to the effort, California is one of only 10 states offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Can a process that incorrectly registers Adarians in Pennsylvania, incorrectly register non-citizens in California? The Secretary of State is using Oregon, which just launched its first-in-the-nation auto register program earlier this year, as the model, but that state hasn’t had California’s DMV problems, nor does it offer licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The legislation acknowledges this prospect by granting immunity to non-citizens who are unwittingly registered to vote through this process.

To summarize, then, AB 1461 proposes to get data from an agency with a recent history of technology and process failures, and add it to a brand new statewide voter database…in nine months…during a presidential election year.

To be clear, I support the Secretary’s hard work to fully and effectively implement the federal Motor Voter law, but given the scope and scale of the work to be done in the coming months, I can only echo the Adarians when I say to California’s DMV: “May the Force be with you.”

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