Motor Voter sparks unusual spike in ‘no party’ registrations at California DMV

The Motor Voter program went into effect in April with the simple goal of increasing the number of people who could register to vote. Since its launch in April, Secretary of State Alex Padilla has touted the increase in new voter registrations.

But data sent in an early-August email from a secretary of state executive obtained by The Sacramento Bee shows an unusual spike in people registering with “no party preference.” It’s true there’s a growing movement toward voters self-identifying as independent, but the number of people registering without a party preference appears unusually high.

Nearly a million voters registered through Motor Voter between April 23 and Aug. 3. The majority of them were listed with no party preference, including 182,000 new voters, 101,000 who had previously been Democrats, 56,000 who had previously been Republicans and 112,000 who already were no party preference voters.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office confirmed the accuracy of the numbers but did not elaborate on the meaning behind them. The DMV declined to respond to the data, instead deferring to Padilla’s office. The DMV said in a statement that customers are responsible for entering the correct information on their party preferences.

“People may either choose a political party or click a button saying, ‘I do not wish to choose a political party,’” the DMV’s statement said. “Those who decide not to choose a party, are defaulted to no party preference. … Customers get a print out to review their vote registration preferences and sign the document before this transaction is completed.”

A spokesman for Padilla said that the agency is “always open to exploring new ways” to improve the process, noting that voters can check their status online at voterstatus.sos.ca.gov.

Paul Mitchell, a political consultant and vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, said the result was to be expected given the layout of the new form.

His data shows that 52 percent of those who registered at the DMV decline to state a party, compared with 33 percent of those who register another way.

“It’s a huge difference,” he said, and one that may better reflect voters’ willingness to belong to a political party.

“It’s like the difference between putting (no party preference) in the back aisle in the back with the toilet paper or in the front where you’re checking out,” he said. “People essentially at the DMV are caring so little about the party preference, they’re fine with no party preference, rather than using a pull-down menu.”

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Yet some customers blame the DMV for creating a confusing process.

Fresno resident Neal Lehman said his wife, Barbara, went to the DMV to renew her driver license during the first week of May. But when she filled out a questionnaire on a DMV computer to update her voter information, she experienced confusing prompts. Two weeks later, she received a card in the mail saying she had switched her registration status from “Republican” to “No Party Preference.”

“She got into the process but never completed it, so it automatically changed to no party preference,” Lehman said.

UNUSUAL REGISTRATION PATTERN

Motor Voter registration at the California DMV went into effect on April 23. Since then, an outsized proportion of people – Democrats, Republicans and previous unregistered people – have ended up registered with No Party Preference.

Graphic: Nathaniel Levine • Source: California Secretary of State email

Joe Holland, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said he has not previously seen the numbers The Bee obtained but has heard stories of people being wrongfully registered at DMV offices.

“There were some inconsistencies with how you choose your party when you register through the DMV compared to when you register online through the secretary of state or via paper,” Holland said. “The DMV said it was going to change the questionnaire on party preference and make it consistent with online voter registration and paper registration.”

Holland added that he met with DMV and Secretary of State officials two weeks ago to inform them of the issue.

He noted that Padilla’s office had conference call with election officials on Wednesday to discuss a separate issue with the DMV involving 23,000 processing errors, but that the conference call did not address the uptick in decline-to-state voters.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a vocal critic of the DMV, accused the DMV and Secretary of State’s Office of purposefully withholding information over the last month for political purposes and deflecting blame onto customers.

“This is excuse making,” Patterson said. “It is simply excuse making. If they weren’t politically invested, I think they’d be far more transparent and far more truthful in how they respond. They now have the audacity to blame voters. I’m almost speechless about it.”

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