Capitol Alert

Deleted texts and ‘show stopper defects’: California tech official raced to launch Motor Voter

The California government technology officials who developed an automatic voter registration program for the Department of Motor Vehicles last year raced to the finish line even though they acknowledged they should have slowed down.

In April 2018, the state delayed the launch of its Motor Voter program by one week because of technical errors, inadequate testing and infrastructure concerns, according to records obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Amy Tong, director of the California Department of Technology, told colleagues working on the project the morning of the scheduled launch that, “In some strange way, this maybe (sic) a sign that we need to slow down in order to go fast again.”

The one-week delay may not have been enough time.

“Fingers cross(ed) and sending positive thoughts,” wrote Marybel Batjer, a California governor’s cabinet official and government operations secretary, just before the launch.

“Crossing fingers for a successful launch tomorrow!” added the project manager.

A year later, Tong and other California government officials are still answering for 105,000 voter registration errors that occurred in the early months of Motor Voter. Lawmakers from both parties say they will soon request an audit into the state’s implementation of the Motor Voter program. In the meantime, an outside company is reviewing possible missteps from the DMV.

A Sacramento Bee analysis of more than 6,000 pages of documents obtained through Public Records Act requests from three state agencies tasked with implementing Motor Voter reveals a rushed roll-out from the DMV, technology department and Secretary of State’s Office.

In the days leading up to the expected roll-out, Tong sent private text messages to to the highest levels of the DMV expressing concerns, which were later deleted.

She declined to comment, as did Alicia Wong, a former technology department worker who managed the Motor Voter project.

DMV faces scrutiny

All three agencies have largely pointed blame elsewhere, though the DMV has received the most public scrutiny. Motor Voter errors unfolded while the department struggled with severe customer service complaints last year and a separate technology challenge in launching a federally mandated ID program.

Today, nearly one in four California voters, including 39 percent of Republicans, think the DMV is in such poor shape it cannot be fixed, according to a Probolsky Research poll conducted last month.

But the technology department also played a critical role in developing Motor Voter. It was responsible for handling many of the technological aspects of the Motor Voter program that later experienced difficulties, including the transfer of voter data to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Initially, the DMV requested a July 2, 2018 launch date. That date would have been after the June 2018 primary election, and Motor Voter would not have been available to increase registration.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla wanted to move faster. He pushed for Motor Voter to be rolled out ahead of the June primaries to boost turnout for a high-interest midterm election.

At his urging, the three agencies agreed in a private June 2017 meeting to launch Motor Voter on April 16, 2018, according to the documents and Padilla’s staff.

Between the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, technology department employees rushed to give the DMV the technical ability to get the program up and running.

Anxiety rises as launch nears

Padilla called Motor Voter a “DMV project,” though he was the principal advocate for the 2015 bill that created the program.

“I was very eager to get rolling on implementation,” Padilla said. “I wish there was a quicker start on behalf of those leading the project. This is a DMV project at the end of the day. Eventually, CDT came in to help, and we were certainly trying to inform and advise. But it was slow in getting going.”

Wesley Goo, who managed a team of DMV workers that designed the registration form and set up a process for technicians to handle the applications, said he wished the launch would have been postponed because the technology department didn’t do enough testing.

“Because this had so many technicals, it was risky,” Goo said. “It was going to be tough.”

Rayfield Scott, a top information security official involved in the project, warned of “unknown risks/impacts to the DMV’s infrastructure” the month of the Motor Voter roll-out, according to an April 2018 email.

“At that point, we were still trying to test. ... The anxiety level just starts to rise as you get closer and closer,” Goo said.

In the days before the scheduled launch, DMV employees worked around the clock and waited on the technology department to address lingering issues with the voter registration application and technician processing systems.

Anxiety mounted as the technology department failed to do enough testing, Goo said.

“Not sure what exactly is going on, but CDT has failed to deliver,” Goo wrote in an email to a top DMV official on April 13.

Alicia Wong, the project manager from CDT, told Goo earlier in the night that she was making a few polishes to the systems. But Goo noticed she didn’t follow up and correct the problems in the subsequent hours.

“Wasted evening,” Goo concluded in the email.

‘Unconscionable’ secrecy from tech officials

Amy Tong, who oversees the technology department, told staff to leave on April 13 and directed testers to return to work the following morning. She then sent private text message communications to the DMV’s director, Jean Shiomoto. But she deleted those communications from her phone a month later, according to her office.

“We do not have any text messages to send you,” Scott-Rowe said in an email. “Amy Tong’s text messages auto delete after 30 days.”

Other government communications about Motor Voter have yet to be available for the public to see. When The Sacramento Bee asked for internal communications from a private messaging application called Slack in January, Scott-Rowe said there were no records responsive to the request.

After being presented with emails that cited Slack communications, the technology department said, “It would have taken a lengthy period of time to give you the voluminous amount of documents to respond to your request.”

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, called the technology department’s practice of deleting texts after a month “unconscionable.”

While he acknowledged the Public Records Act does not explicitly state how long state agencies must hold onto messages from their personal devices, he said the intent of the law is for the records to be maintained for a longer period of time.

Racing to the finish line

As the deadline neared, Padilla moved to cancel two press conferences and bump the start date from April 16 to April 23.

On April 16, Tong said in an email that despite some progress, “we are stuck again on the internal connectivity challenge, topped off by an unexplained disruption of (an) already established connection.”

The day before the official launch, the CDT found what it referred to in an email as “show stopper” defects.

The technology department decided to move forward anyway.

Whatever couldn’t be immediately changed would get fixed as soon as Motor Voter rolled out, Padilla said.

“Whatever pieces the technical team were not comfortable with as ready to go, we postponed those for the purposes of enfranchising as many Californians as possible in time for an upcoming election,” Padilla said.

Within the first two weeks of the April 23 roll-out, Padilla’s staff discovered 77,000 registration errors stemming from a software issue. In September, the DMV and CDT reported an “administrative processing error” led to 23,000 customers being incorrectly registered to vote — some of whom were assigned to the wrong political party.

A month later, 5,000 transmittal errors caused hundreds of people who wanted to vote to not be registered in time for the midterm elections.

Padilla told county elections officials during a conference call last fall that the mistakes have damaged voter confidence, according to the documents.

In hindsight, Padilla said he wished Motor Voter had been a smaller, standalone technology project that was more clearly defined. While he said he could have postponed the launch by one or two years, he encouraged the departments to move forward.

“To me, it wasn’t worth the wait,” he said.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.
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