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State officials are scrambling – and scratching their heads – after reports that West Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles is losing voter registrations meant for the Secretary of State and county clerks. The Register-Herald has more:
State officials say the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles is losing voter registrations, but they don’t know how many and for how long.
Donald Kersey, general counsel for Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office, said the DMV sends the Secretary of State’s office a daily list of voter registrations, but the secretary’s office estimate several registrations are lost per day because of technical problems at the DMV – “a systematic error,” he said.
The problem, Kersey said, has been ongoing at least since the 2018 general election. During a five-day test period in January, 37 people, who were flagged as registering at the DMV, did not have their registration received by the Secretary of State.
Kersey, who was previously elections director for the Secretary of State, noted that West Virginia law says the DMV should forward voter registrations to the Secretary of State’s office, which transfers it to county clerks.
The problem, which seems to be related to aging technology, was first noticed in the run-up to the 2018 election – and is now imperiling the planned move to automatic voter registration:
[Kersey] said that during early voting before the 2018 general election, dozens of people said they had registered at local DMVs to vote, but the Secretary of State’s office had no record of it.
“That’s a terrible experience, and if it’s your first time, you might not want to vote again because you had a bad experience,” he said.
In 2016, lawmakers passed legislation to enact automatic voter registration. Once implemented, drivers would not have to opt in to register to vote at the DMV, but would instead need to opt out if they didn’t want automatically registered.
During hearings in the recent legislative session, lawmakers wanted to know why automatic voter registration had not begun yet. During a Senate Judiciary meeting, DMV Deputy Commissioner Linda Ellis told lawmakers the DMV was dealing with an old server, called a mainframe.
“I’ve been here 26 years and it was here way before I was there,” she said.
She said they didn’t know “where the records are dropping and what’s causing those records to drop.”
Senator Patricia Rucker (R – Jefferson) noted that voter registration records include personal information and asked if the DMV knew where those files ended up.
“We do not,” Ellis said. “We do know that the record was sent from the main frame. We do know that the vendor received it, but then the Secretary of State’s office did not receive it.”
The DMV is working to address the problem, but has yet to rectify it:
Reached by phone this week, Ellis referred questions to Department of Transportation spokespersons. Brent Walker, spokesman for the department, said he was unable to arrange an interview but sent a statement from Acting DMV Commissioner Adam Holley:
“The DMV was notified by Secretary of State in October 2018 constituents were reporting they registered to vote during the Driver’s license/ID transactions at DMV but were not on the voter rolls and had not yet received a voter registration card. Each applicant was researched by the DMV individually, and the voter registration information was forwarded to Secretary of State for appropriate action.”
The previous commissioner Pat Reed, who announced her retirement last month, said that voter registration problems were not related to her retirement, and referred questions to the DMV, saying it wouldn’t be ethical for her to comment.
The current vendor for the DMV is Gemalto, according to Kersey. A spokesperson for Gemalto did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
One solution, of course, is provisional ballots – but it’s not clear they’re being offered:
Kersey said the election law requires those voters who thought they had registered at DMVs to be given provisional ballots on election days.
“The county commission is the body with the authority to decide whether or not a vote should count, and if they don’t have any evidence that you’re supposed to be registered to vote, or that you did register but there was an error, then they’re not going to count your ballot,” he said.
The DMV has identified 50 people who registered but never received a voter registration card, Kersey said. But they don’t have an estimate of how many people may have been affected.
“Unfortunately not, because not everybody told the poll workers,” he said. “I would estimate that we got just a small number of people who could have caught in this.”
Until the problem is addressed, the problem could be affecting a few dozen voters per day, with the prospect for bigger problems if AVR were to go into place:
“In our research, it looks like we could be losing 10-20 names a day from the DMV,” he said. “Who knows how far back that goes? We really have no way of knowing.”
Kersey noted that if automatic voter registration had taken effect, the DMV would be losing even more registrations.
But he said that the DMV has contracted with a new vendor, IDEMIA, who should have a new system running by November, and that the Secretary of State’s IT staff has spoken with them.
“It’s not that we can’t do it,” he said. “We’re doing everything we’re supposed to do right. The counties are doing everything they’re supposed to do correctly. The problem is we’re not getting all the records were supposed to be getting from the DMV, so if we’re not getting them through the regular process where people actively select yes, when you get automatic in there, the numbers are going to increase exponentially.”
The next elections are municipal, on June 4. Voters must be registered by May 14.
In the meantime, officials are advising voters to verify their information with local officials:
Kersey said that people who register at DMVs that want to make sure their registrations are valid should contact county clerks but to give it several days.
“Generally speaking, we have full faith that the DMV is going to be able to able to figure out what the problem is especially with the new vendor, so I think we’re on the up,” he said.
“All our office needs,” he said, “is a file with everybody’s name in it.”
West Virginia’s issues are not new and they are not unique; other states have confronted similar problems as information sharing protocols are established between state agencies and election offices. But given the personal information involved – and the prospect for problems at the polls in 2020 and beyond if they are not resolved – here’s hoping everyone concerned gets it figured out sooner or later. Stay tuned…