ACLU: California DMV Fails at Voter Registration; Lawsuit Possible

Some Californians say they weren't registered to vote because the DMV didn't process their applications.

Some Californians say they weren't registered to vote because the DMV didn't process their applications. (Montala Support)

It’s been more than two decades since Congress passed the so-called Motor Voter Act requiring state DMVs to let residents register to vote at their offices — but the ACLU of California says the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is falling asleep at the wheel, and it’s threatening to sue.

The civil rights organization is filing a complaint Thursday with Secretary of State Alex Padilla on behalf of three Californians as well as four organizations: the League of Women Voters of California, the National Council of La Raza, California Common Cause and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

The complaint, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleges the DMV makes it unnecessarily difficult to register to vote, and that even when people do bother to file a voter registration application with the state agency, they don’t always end up on the voter rolls.

Stuart Naifeh, a lawyer at the nonprofit organization Demos, which is working with the ACLU on the case, said California isn’t the only state that has failed to adequately implement the motor voter law — but its shortcomings do “offer a stark example of some of the things we have seen that are wrong.”

Among those problems: The state DMV doesn’t automatically transfer information from its driver’s license applications onto a voter registration form, even though most of the information is the same, and it doesn’t always process the voter registration forms when people fill them out.

“California does not treat the driver’s license application as a voter registration application — instead it makes voters complete an entirely separate voter registration application,” he said. “We’ve also found problems where even when people do submit a voter registration application at the DMV, it isn’t getting processed and they are not being put on the voter rolls.”

Naifeh pointed to one of those named in Thursday’s complaint, a 62-year-old Los Angeles County resident named Shelley Small.

“She has voted in every election since she was 19,” he said. “In 2014, she moved from Encino to West Hollywood, and she went to the DMV to update her driver’s license, and she specifically asked about her voter registration. And she was told that her voter registration would, in fact, be updated.”

But when Small went to vote last year, Naifeh said, “She found she was not on the rolls and was not able to vote in 2014 for the first time in her adult life.”

A spokesman for the DMV declined to comment, saying the agency has not seen the complaint.

But the ACLU is expecting a friendly audience at Padilla’s office: The former state senator was a big champion of expanding voter access while in the Legislature, authoring legislation to make it easier for Californians to register to vote.

  • Curious

    Got to get all those illegals in line to vote dem.


Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle's award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: Twitter @mlagos Facebook

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