Monday, April 17, 2006

California voter registration problems in the news

Last Friday Electionline, a nonpartisan organization providing news and analysis about election reform, published this newsletter highlighting problems with California's voter registration system. Excerpts are featured below.


While much of the recent election hand-wringing has focused on documented and potential problems with voting systems, recent troubles in several states have shifted some of the focus to another major election change – newly implemented statewide voter registration databases.

The voter lists, mandated by the Help America Vote Act with the aim to eliminate voter registration problems related to inaccurate or haphazard rolls, have raised concerns that list problems in some states could potentially disenfranchise large numbers of voters.

Such is the case in California where, since January 1, nearly 25 percent of voter registration forms submitted for verification have been rejected by the statewide database. In Los Angeles County, 43 percent of voter registrations have been rejected.

In a letter to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson (R), Conny McCormack, L.A. County registrar-recorder/county clerk cited several examples of some of the thousands of applications rejected by the “CalVoter” system. They included some forms being rejected because of spaces in last names, such as "De Leon," or a last name that is two words with no hyphen, such as "Weaver Cardona." Some new residents had applications rejected because the DMV records CalVoter uses for verification can be up to six months old.

“The challenge of setting up a statewide voter registration database that complies with HAVA requirements has been well-known to election administrators and activists for years,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “This particular problem that California is experiencing is a result of the terms of an agreement made between the Secretary of State and the Department of Justice that is unique to California and a handful of other states. This form rejection problem itself is a surprise that I don’t think anyone anticipated.”

McCormack has had to hire 25 temporary staff to handle the calls and the mailings to contact rejected voters. To date, about 29 percent of the rejected forms have been cleared by phone calls and 10 to 15 percent through follow-up mailings. McCormack said although many of the contacted voters have responded nearly 1,000 have refused to provide the necessary information because of fears of identity theft.

Even though some of the examples of people being rejected by the CalVoter system are voters who were already registered but were simply changing their party affiliation, address or name, Alexander believes new voters will suffer the greatest impact from the verification problems.

“The problem will impact some, but not all voters,” Alexander said. “Unfortunately, the voters who could be the most severely impacted are new voters who registered for the first time. If first-time voters don’t receive a sample ballot in the mail, they won’t have the information they need about the candidates and the measures on the ballot, and they won’t be informed of their polling place location.”

On March 31, McPherson announced plans to introduce legislation to improve current state law and provide some “common sense flexibility” for county elections officials when dealing with the voter verification process. The proposal would mean that if all other personal information provided by the voter matches a single DMV record, the voter will not need to be personally contacted and will become a registered voter.

The California Senate Elections Committee held hearings on the issue on April 6 and following the hearing, Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, D-East Bay, and Sen. Barbara Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, chair of the committee [who is challenging McPherson for office], called on McPherson to change voter verification regulations insisting that the fix lies within the regulations and not legislatively.

According to a spokesperson for McPherson, the secretary is working with the legislature to find a sponsor for the legislation. The spokesperson indicated that several legislators have expressed an interest in authoring the legislation.

“The story is still developing,” McCormack said. “Is it a state law problem, is it a regulation problem? Everyone agrees it’s a problem and I just hope some legislative council can help and get it out of this political realm. I just want the voter to be on file. How it happens isn’t important to me. What matters is that it happens and happens quickly.”

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