Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voter registration conflict between Secretary of State and San Diego Registrar of Voters

A reporter with the San Diego weekly newspaper CityBeat has turned up an troubling conflict between Secretary of State Debra Bowen and San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler.

The article by David Maass, published on October 18, called "Voter Beware" reports on the journalist's and others' receipt of a letter from the San Diego registrar stating that their voter registration applications were not fully processed due to the information about their birth place missing from the form.

The reason this information was missing is because Maass and other San Diego voters used the online system set up by the California Secretary of State, which utilizes the National Voter Registration Card.  As I understand it, it is the position of the Secretary of State's office that the California voter registration card cannot be used because to complete it online and print it out on plain paper does not meet the specific printing requirements mandated under California law.  Seiler apparently disagrees, and has made an online version of the California form available on San Diego County's election web site.

However, the federal form does not include birth place, which is required to be provided on the California form.  This is where the difference of opinion between the Secretary of State and San Diego County comes into play.  An excerpt from Maass' story is below.

Thousands of San Diego County residents who downloaded voter forms from the California Secretary of State’s website are receiving letters bearing mixed messages about the status of their registrations. 

In the letters, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters’ office tells voters that their registrations have not been fully processed due to “missing birth place” on their paperwork.

“This form is being sent to you because your original affidavit of registration was not properly completed,” the letter says. “Before we can complete the process of your Affidavit of Registration, we must have additional information from you.” 

The letter is incorrect. 

There are two types of voter-registration forms that are valid in California. The state’s official form includes a blank for a birth place. But the Secretary of State’s website provides the National Mail Voter Registration Form, which does not require the information. San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler prefers the state form. As a result, her office automatically interprets a correctly filled-out federal registration form as incomplete. 

By sending out the letters, Seiler is ignoring a November 2009 advisory the Secretary of State sent to county elections officials that unequivocally states: “Elections Officials Do Not Need to Determine Registrant’s Country or State of Birth” if the voter is using the National Mail Voter Registration Form. 

Seiler says that her letter does not actually prevent the affected voters from casting a ballot on Nov. 2. Instead, she describes it as a “soft pend” against their voter registration. In other words, they will be allowed to vote, but the county would still like to collect more information from them.

This is not spelled out the letter. Rather, it says: “IF THE MISSING INFORMATION IS ON LINE 5, THIS FORM MUST BE RETURNED TO OUR OFFICE BEFORE YOU WILL BE ALLOWED TO VOTE.” The letter then lists “birth date” and “place of birth” as lines 5 and 6, but does not clearly state which is which. (
Line 5 is the date of birth, while Line 6 is place of birth.)

After reviewing a copy of the document, a lawyer with Project Vote in Washington, D.C. says the letter would discourage many voters from visiting the polls. 

“There are people who get something like this and say, ‘I guess I screwed up, so I won’t bother to vote,’” Estelle Rogers, Project Vote’s director of advocacy, tells CityBeat. “That’s the problem, especially since the language is so unclear and doesn’t say ‘Go vote!’”

Taking a second look at the language, Seiler acknowledges the letter should be rewritten. 

“We need to separate lines 5 and 6 at a minimum, and reword it to be clearer,” Seiler tells CityBeat

Seiler estimates that between 400 and 2,000 voters per month submitted these national forms throughout the current election cycle, and, consequently, all of them received the automatic “missing birth place” letters. 

While the office must accept the national form, Seiler says she prefers voters use the state’s version. San Diego is one of the few counties to provide the state form online. This move also ignores the Secretary of State’s November 2009 directive.

In the memorandum, state Chief of Elections Cathy Mitchell told county officials that the state registration form could not be distributed online because California Election Code requires forms to be printed on perforated paper of a certain dimension and thickness, use multiple ink colors and include pre-paid postage. The national form is not subject to the same requirements—and that’s why the office uses it on its website. 

Seiler argues that using the federal forms just creates more paperwork. “Here we have a form that’s put out there that doesn’t have all the critical information,” Seiler says. “Then we have to collect the critical information because it’s always missing from the form.” 

This practice is not consistent with the Secretary of State’s interpretation that the law “does not require a person using the National Form to provide any additional information beyond what is contained on the National Form in order to register.” In contrast to San Diego, the Orange County Registrar of Voters does not send out a letter and instead enters “U.S.” on the voter’s behalf in its database. 

No matter the form, Rogers believes the birth-place requirement is illegal. “I would argue that it is a straight-up violation of federal law,” Rogers says. “States are allowed to have their own voter registration forms, but it is supposed to approximate the federal form and require no more information than is necessary to evaluate if you are eligible to vote.”

Since both the state and federal forms ask voters to swear they are citizens, Rogers says a voter’s birth place is “completely immaterial.” Rogers also says that changing the language of Seiler’s letter isn’t enough to satisfy her organization, considering the thousands that have already been mailed. 

“As a minimum, there needs to be a directive from the Secretary of State about how to fix this,” she says. “Also, there should be public-service announcements in the media between now and election day that say, ‘If you got this letter, you are still registered to vote and you should show up at the polls.” 

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