Capitol Alert

Did non-citizens vote last year? California officials still can’t say

California officials still can’t say whether non-citizens voted in the June 2018 primary because a confusing government questionnaire about eligibility was created in a way that prevents a direct answer on citizenship.

The snag comes from a voter eligibility questionnaire that lumps five separate characteristics, such as age and citizenship status, into one prompt that people see at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they try to get or renew a driver’s license.

Investigators can see that people marked themselves as ineligible to vote or declined to answer eligibility questions, but they can’t tell why.

“We can’t assume why they declined to answer eligibility questions or why they said they were not eligible,” the Secretary of State’s Office wrote in an internal memo on Oct. 8, 2018.

That email and other documents The Sacramento Bee obtained through the Public Records Act shed light on why the Secretary of State has been unable to say clearly whether non-citizens voted last year. The Bee filed a legal complaint for the records when the Secretary of State initially withheld most of them.

The email shows that, for months, California officials have been examining whether non-citizens voted last year. On Thursday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla confirmed for the first time that his office has an active internal investigation into the matter.

“The Secretary of State’s office does not comment on the details of ongoing investigations,” the office said in a statement. “Determining whether ineligible individuals who were erroneously registered to vote by the DMV cast ballots requires a complete review. The Secretary of State’s office is doing its due diligence by conducting a thorough investigation.”

Spokesmen for the office declined to say how the department could otherwise determine citizenship of those registered.

While the office is confident non-citizens were unable to vote in the November general election, it remains unsure about the June primary.

Since the DMV started automatically registering people to vote on April 23, 2018, it has acknowledged making 105,000 processing errors out of more than 2.4 million transactions. At least one non-citizen has come forward to say he was improperly added to the voter rolls in the latest batch of errors.

Padilla was quick to lash out at the DMV and the California Department of Technology for the mistakes that may have added non-citizens onto the voter rolls.

“This last notification raises grave concerns about the method in which the DMV and CDT have implemented the program,” Padilla wrote in an October letter to the agencies’ directors.

CDT declined to comment because its director, Amy Tong, was unavailable. The DMV said it is not responsible for verification of voter eligibility and deferred citizenship questions to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Blame aside, Padilla and his critics agree the registration errors undermine voter confidence in California’s election systems.

State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said he still has “a high level of confidence in California’s election systems,” but thinks the state “can do more to assure the voters that the system doesn’t have holes in it and that the boat isn’t leaking.”

While Moorlach insists voter fraud is a legitimate possibility, Padilla disagrees.

“These registrations do not constitute voter fraud, as none of the individuals erroneously registered did so through any affirmative effort on their part,” Padilla wrote in a Nov. 9 letter to Moorlach.

Republicans are responding to the Motor Voter growing pains by calling for sweeping changes to the program. Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, introduced a bill last month that would adopt an opt-in voting process and do away with automatic registration of customers.

Padilla has praised Motor Voter for boosting turnout. but he said in early October that he was considering halting the program.

He opted not to do so.

“Tens of thousands of Californians will continue (to) register or update their voter registration information at the DMV — people that want to participate in the upcoming midterm elections,” Padilla’s office wrote in the memo. “I do not want to deny this opportunity to these Californians.”

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