Capitol Alert

California DMV won’t face independent review over handling of Real ID, Motor Voter

For the second time in the past 12 months, California Democrats declined to open an independent investigation into the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

The audit request was billed as the most sweeping review of the DMV’s troubled roll-out of a voter registration program and a new federal ID requirement that has put the state at odds with the Trump administration.

The proposal would have also examined the California Department of Technology’s role in implementing Motor Voter — a program that launched in April 2018 to automatically register eligible voters when they visit DMV offices. About 105,000 registration errors have occurred since the program’s launch.

It died Wednesday at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, where lawmakers consider investigations they want State Auditor Elaine Howle to carry out in the coming year. Her department does not report to the Governor’s Office and is considered independent of state government’s executive branch.

Democrats in the state Senate opposed the proposal, saying it would duplicate Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ongoing efforts to improve a department he once called “chronically mismanaged.” Four Senate Democrats voted against the proposal Wednesday afternoon while one abstained, thus killing the request.

The DMV is being reviewed by an outside firm called Ernst & Young in addition to a strike team Newsom appointed to address ongoing problems with long wait times, an inability to accept credit card payments and concerns over employee training and outdated equipment. Both reports are expected to be completed by the end of July or early-August.

Kathleen Webb, the DMV’s acting director, didn’t dismiss the value of the request but said it would force the department to divert resources.

“We’ll have a good handle on things we need to do,” Webb said.

The technology department declined to comment.

It was déjà vu for Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, who fell one vote shy of a request he submitted last year to investigate long wait times customers were experiencing. Though he partnered this time with a Democratic colleague, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, Patterson was unable to ease some lawmakers’ worries that the new request was unnecessary and duplicative of other reviews.

Salas said he tried to work with the Newsom administration behind the scenes to make a compromise that would allow an audit to go forward.

“We’ve worked with the administration late into the night and early this morning before the hearing,” Salas said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to reach a conclusion that supported the audit. We tried to be respectful of what the administration has done so far. We even suggested delaying an implementation to allow them to finish their work.”

Democratic Sens. Richard Roth and Lena Gonzalez opposed the audit request but said they’d be open to supporting a future inquiry. All Assembly Democrats in the committee supported the plan, while none on the senate side did.

SEIU Local 1000, state government’s largest union, urged lawmakers to oppose the proposal, according to Patterson and Salas.

Brian Nash, a spokesman for the union, said it did not necessarily oppose the audit request, but was concerned another investigation would distract from other priorities.

“The audit feels premature,” Nash said in a written statement. “Therefore, we urge that the committee be thoughtful concerning how the state utilizes its resources to guarantee there are no redundancies, especially given the fact the other reviews have already begun.”

Patterson expects to introduce another audit request in the near future.

“This was a minor setback because, sooner or later, I think even those that couldn’t vote for it are going to see that they’re going to have put this through a set of eyes that has the kind of history and trustworthiness that Elaine Howle has,” 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.