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CA Voters Beware: There's A Serious Problem with DMV's Motor Voter System

Created: 21 May, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

Update, 9/6/18: Though California officials said they were correcting the problems with the DMV motor voter system, department officials reported Wednesday that more than 23,000 voters had been registered incorrectly since April.


California's new automatic voter registration system -- also known as "Motor Voter" -- went into effect on April 23. Didn't hear about it? Not very many people did as the launch got little press coverage.

However, the change is significant, and all eligible voters in California should be aware of it. Especially, since it appears that there may be problems with the DMV's system.

Here is what you need to know.

Voters Are Losing Their Party Affiliation

According to the secretary of state's website, eligible California voters are automatically registered to vote when they complete a driver's license, state ID, or change of address transaction with the DMV.

However, according to Inyo County Registrar Kammi Foote, it appears some voters may be re-registering when they pay for their vehicle registration. Foote says that although citizens have always been offered the opportunity to update their registration through this process, it wasn’t automatic.

There is also an issue of registered voters who might be confused by the touch-screen options on devices at DMV locations. The options are meant to make it easy for first-time registrants, and it could be confusing for some voters who just want to update their information.

Either way, election officials are now getting multiple registrations from some people. However, many of these voters are unknowingly registering as No Party Preference, even if they registered with a party the first time around.

"It is causing a nightmare on the administrative process," says Foote.

Unfortunately, with just 15 days until the June primaries, county registrars don't have the time or staff to look further into the problem. It is fortunate, however, for both voters and election administrators that it is a midterm election, which means all state and federal elections use the nonpartisan, top-two open primary.

All voters and candidates participate on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

This would have created an even bigger headache for voters and election administrators in a presidential election since California still uses a semi-closed primary system. Participation in some party primaries is conditioned on being a registered member of that party.

If a Republican lost their registered party affiliation, for instance, and did not get it resolved before go to the polls to cast a ballot, they would not be able to vote in the GOP presidential primary. The last presidential primary created enough nightmares for voters who were unfamiliar with the process.

ALSO READ: California Resolution Would Provide for a Nonpartisan “Public Ballot” Option for Presidential Primaries

County elections officials are working to resolve registration disputes, but they have to juggle these case-by-case while also preparing for the June 5 primary, and taking care of mail-in ballots. It is a frustrating process for both election administrators and voters affected.

Voided Mail-In Ballots

Foote told me she knows she is not the only county registrar who is experiencing issues. Another registrar brought up similar issues in a call with the secretary of state, which means it is not an isolated problem.

In a midterm election, party affiliation is not going to be an issue. However, this problem could potentially create complications for some voters who send their ballot in by mail.

There is a failsafe in place in the event that a voter's registration information changes after they receive a mail-in ballot. If a voter receives a mail-in ballot and their registration changes, the ballot is voided. This is to make sure voters who move are voting in the right elections.

However, this applies to any change to a voter's registration. If the voter registers and then is re-registered as a result of this DMV issue, their mail-in ballot would be voided.

It is an issue that can be resolved by an elections administrator, but many county registrar's offices are understaffed. Lacking sufficient staff and resources means that not only could an issue fall through the cracks, but some counties can't properly train their people to deal with certain situations that arise.

Know Your Registration Status

There are bound to be a few kinks with any new system. It is natural. New software is implemented. Some state employees need new training. Voters need to be educated. Mistakes -- minor or major -- are bound to happen.

In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best idea to implement a new voter registration system a month before the June primaries. But it is what it is. The biggest issue here is very few voters knew of the April 23 implementation of Motor Voter.

It is also important that voters know their current registration status. Not sure how to do that? Visit the "My Voter Status" page on the secretary of state's website.

You will be asked to provide a few bits of information to confirm your identity. The website will then give you your current registration information, including your political party preference and whether or not you are a permanent vote-by-mail voter.

If there are any problems with your information, the page provides the website and phone number for your county's registrar of voters.

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