Think long lines are the worst thing that can happen at the Department of Motor Vehicles? The California DMV has everyone beat. Officials there recently admitted that a "processing error" had led to 1,500 people – including non-citizens – being improperly registered to vote.
A one-time glitch, you may think. But this news follows a recent revelation that the state's DMV had botched some 23,000 voter registrations and double-registered potentially tens of thousands more.
Clearly, California is struggling under its new "motor voter" law to ensure the accuracy of its voter rolls just weeks ahead of a high-stakes election. And perhaps even worse, this latest problem was only discovered when one man – Canadian citizen Randall Marquis – reported to officials that he had been improperly registered.
California's goal may be to grow voter participation, but officials appear to have forgotten something important: Participation is driven not by registration alone, but by public confidence in the integrity of the process – and the accuracy of the result.
Fairness is paramount. That's why all states, not just California, need to adopt policies designed to verify voters' identities and eligibility, and to ensure that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date.
Unfortunately, many states are struggling with this. The evidence clearly indicates that America's voter registration records are a mess.
According to a 2012 report by the Pew Center on the States, roughly 24 million voter registrations nationwide – roughly one in eight – are inaccurate or out of date. Nearly 2.8 million Americans are registered in more than one state. Another 1.8 million voters remain on the rolls after their death.
Allowing state voter registration records to languish increases the prospect for fraud. The Heritage Foundation maintains and routinely updates an election fraud database containing a sampling of proven cases of fraud from across the nation. Many of its entries involve people who were able to register and vote in multiple states, who voted in the name of others, or who cast ballots despite being ineligible due to a felony conviction or being a noncitizen.
Many of these cases likely could have been prevented if state voter rolls were better maintained. Unfortunately, many states take few, if any, proactive steps to identify and remove incorrect entries.
The consequences of lax controls on voter registration may be profound. The Heritage database details several examples of elections that have been overturned because of the scope of fraud.
For example, the town of Pembroke, North Carolina, had no mayor for a year after irregularities prompted the State Board of Elections to re-do the 2015 vote. The runner-up in the first election prevailed in the second, but months of ongoing challenges prevented him from assuming office.
In North St. Louis, Missouri, the 2016 Democratic primary for the 78th state House District was marred by scandal. Incumbent Penny Hubbard won by 90 votes owing to lopsided support among absentee voters. A legal challenged ensued, and a judge held that a sufficient number of improper ballots had been cast to change the results of the election. He ordered a special election be held, which challenger Bruce Franks Jr. won by a commanding 1,533 votes.
The importance of free and fair elections is obvious. It should be equally obvious that states have a duty to adopt reasonable and common-sense procedures for identifying and removing inaccurate voter registrations.
Many states, however, have yet to do so. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states require no proof of identification of any kind when voting, including California.
Unbelievably, those states that do take steps to secure their elections and bolster voter confidence face significant opposition. When Ohio, for example, implemented a plan sanctioned in federal law to clean up its voter rolls, activists filed a lawsuit to stop it. The state had to fight a legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Ohio's plan as consistent with federal law.
Hopefully, more states will follow Ohio's lead than California's. For the Golden State's ambitions to enhance voter participation to succeed, it must consider more than simply making it ever-easier to register. It must convince voters that the process is free of the taint of fraud, and that officials are taking seriously their duty to ensure the integrity and security of the process.
After all, every illegally-cast ballot effectively disenfranchises a legal voter – and Americans deserve better than that.
This piece originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee