WASHINGTON — Half the states using the “motor voter” program – which lets a voter sign up while renewing a driver’s license – suffered serious glitches last election. In some cases, Americans were denied ballots, a government review found.
The Federal Election Commission said Friday the problems ranged from motor vehicle departments that failed to forward registration information in a timely manner to forms that were filled out incorrectly.
In all, 23 of the 44 states subject to the National Voter Registration Act reported significant problems with the program.
The number of complaints last fall were triple those of the election in 1998, officials said.
Florida, where vote-counting problems prompted the presidential election stalemate between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, was not among the states reporting serious motor voter problems last fall.
In 18 states, motor vehicle departments had trouble getting registration information to election officials expeditiously – in some cases, in time for voters to be included on rolls on Election Day, the FEC said.
“Some of the states reported voters saying they had registered at the DMV, but come Election Day they were not on the rolls, so there was a breakdown somewhere in the system,” FEC researcher Brian Hancock said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said its review of the handling of absentee ballots from overseas military personnel found no major problems that would have delayed delivery to election offices last fall.
The review was requested last November by then-Defense Secretary William Cohen after several hundred absentee ballots from troops abroad were rejected in Florida due to flaws such as the lack of signatures or postmarks. Those problems are being examined in a separate study.
The motor voter law was enacted in 1995 to make it easier for voters to register, allowing voters to register by mail and when they renew driver’s licenses, register cars or apply for various government benefits.
The FEC said it received hundreds of calls from voters who said they went to the polls last November only to be told they couldn’t vote because motor vehicle offices never sent their registration forms to election officials.
High turnover among motor vehicle workers is a big part of the problem, officials said.
“When the law was passed, most of the states did a very, very good job in training the people there,” Hancock said. “I think maybe the training has not been ongoing in many states.”
One state where poll workers turned away voters who thought they registered at motor vehicle offices was Arizona, where Bush defeated Gore by about 96,000 votes.
In many cases, motorists checked off a box indicating they wanted to register to vote, but motor vehicle workers failed to make sure they also filled out a registration form, state election director Jessica Funkhouser said. She said she was not ruling out the possibility that offices also failed to turn in forms.
Funkhouser said such instances were too few to have made much of a difference in the presidential vote totals. Still, Arizona is taking steps to improve its program.
The state is working on a computer program that will require motor vehicle workers to complete voter registration questions, and had already reduced worker errors by expanding training before last year’s election, Funkhouser said.
Others reporting problems getting motor voter forms to election officials include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.
Florida reported only scattered complaints from people who weren’t allowed to vote even though they thought they had registered at the motor vehicle department.
Florida elections director Clay Roberts said some voters registering at the DMV may not have realized state law required them to do so no later than 30 days before the election.
Worker error also played a role, Roberts said. To reduce that problem, the Florida DMV recently added a staffer to serve as a motor voter liaison between counties and motor vehicle offices, he said.
Among other states with problems, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Virginia listed glitches such as incomplete applications, change-of-address errors or motor vehicle workers failing to consistently provide voter registration forms.
Connecticut reported cases in which the Spanish-language form was not provided to motor vehicle customers as required by the Voting Rights Act.
The FEC survey, given to Congress every two years, provides further fodder as lawmakers consider legislation to fix voting glitches that surfaced in last fall’s presidential election.
Senate Rules Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., plans hearings on election reform next week.