County Registrar Urges Voters to Register Early

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 04, 2006

The acting registrar of voters for Alameda County urged citizens registering for the first time who want to vote in the June 6 primary and nominating election to get their paperwork in early, expecting numerous delays and problems with California’s new registration requirements. 

A state senator has charged that Secretary of State Bruce McPherson cut a deal with the Bush Administration which would prevent many Californians from registering or reregistering to vote. 

California law sets a registration deadline of 5 p.m. on May 22 for voters who wish to cast ballots in the June 6 election. But according to Acting Registrar Elaine Ginnold, because of delays caused by the setting up of a statewide registration database mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), “if you wait until May 22 to register, your name won’t be listed on your precinct roll.” 

There have been reports of widespread registration and re-registration problems around the state since the state registration database requirements went into effect on Jan. 1 this year. 

In Alameda County alone the problem was “just enormous” in the beginning of HAVA database compliance, with some 6,000 registration forms returned by the office of the Secretary of State because of data discrepancies, according to Ginnold. 

“Now it’s diminished quite a bit because most of what we’re doing now is changes to existing registration forms,” she said, but added that she expects the problem to resurface as new registrations get turned in to her office near the May registration deadline. 

Under the HAVA requirements, states must cross-check the information on voter registration forms with the information in the state database for licensed drivers and individuals with state identification cards. 

California was not able to meet the statewide registration database requirements in time, and an interim solution was worked out between federal officials and Secretary of State McPherson. Ginnold estimated that the final statewide registration database won’t be in place until 2010. 

According to Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law (www.brennancenter.org), under the McPherson-Bush Administration agreement, California is one of nine states which has chosen to adopt an “exact match” standard of compliance. 

What that means, according to Ginnold, is that “if you got your driver’s license under the name James T. Smith and then registered to vote under the name Jim Smith, the names don’t match, and the Secretary of State’s office sends the registration form back to the county to verify whether the two names apply to the same person.” 

Ginnold said that once new registration forms or change of address forms are received in the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office, “it takes about a week for the information to be keyed into the computer. It takes about 5 days for the Secretary of State’s office to do the database matching and send back registration forms that have discrepancies.” 

Registrar of Voters workers must then contact the voter to attempt to clear up any discrepancies. The Registrar of Voters office publishes two voter registration lists for precincts—for the June election, the main registration list will be published on May 12, and a supplemental list will be printed on May 31. 

Ginnold said that while any voter showing up at the polls can vote by provisional ballot if their name is not on their precinct registration list, new voters or voters changing precincts should count on getting their forms in by the week of May 8 to ensure that their names are on one of the precinct lists.  

Meanwhile, the controversy over the new statewide voter list requirements—and the resulting reports of large numbers of voters needing to have their data verified—had the Secretary of State’s office scrambling to contain the political damage. 

On March 30, Secretary of State McPherson commemorated his first year in office by declaring April “Voter Education and Participation Month” in California. 

“It is my hope for every eligible Californian to exercise their precious right to vote,” McPherson said in a prepared press statement.  

McPherson, a Republican, was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley resigned under a cloud of ethics violation charges. 

The same day, California State Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach), chair of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee, told reporters, “It’s ironic to see him proclaim April as ‘voter participation month’ after he signed a landmark agreement with President Bush’s Department of Justice that makes it hard for people to register and re-register to vote in California. The deal he cut with the Bush Administration nearly five months ago has been a disaster for anyone who is trying to register for the first time or re-register because they moved, got married and need to change their name, or because they want to change parties. The Bush Administration has referred to its deal with Secretary McPherson as a ‘model for other states,’ but given the number of eligible voters who have been prevented from registering and re-registering to vote in California thanks to this deal, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to follow California’s lead. The Secretary said the agreement will ensure that ‘all eligible voters will be able to cast a ballot in California,’ but the evidence in so far means exactly the opposite is what’s going to happen. Thousands of people are likely to be prevented from registering or re-registering in time for the April 11 municipal and special elections in California as a direct result of this agreement, and I think the problem is going to get even worse as we approach the May 22 deadline to register for the June primary.”  

Bowen went on to say, “The problem we’re having in California goes beyond missing driver’s license numbers and it stems directly from the Bush-McPherson deal that adopted the most restrictive standards possible. ... The potential for tens of thousands of voters to be disenfranchised thanks to this deal is astronomical. People shouldn’t be prevented from voting or have to jump through additional hurdles simply because they move, get married and change their name, or want to change parties. Counties are required to go back and contact voters one by one to make sure John Smith is the same as Jonathan A. Smith, even when the addresses, birth dates, and driver’s license numbers of the two are identical, and that takes an incredible amount of manpower, especially in a county like Los Angeles where during the height of the season, it’s receiving 20,000 voter registration forms a day. If the Bush-McPherson standards continue to reject 43 percent of all voter registration and re-registration forms, it means more than 8,000 people a day who are legally entitled to register to vote may not be able to do so, and that’s just in L.A. County.” 

The next day, McPherson issued a second statement, proposing state legislation that would allow county registration offices to clear up discrepancies in registration data using existing state databases, rather than being forced to contact the voters themselves. 

“I’ve listened to the concerns that dedicated county election officials have about current state law,” McPherson said, adding that his proposed new legislation “will help to ensure access to eligible voters while still providing safeguards against voter fraud.” 

In addition, McPherson put the onus on the voters themselves, urging “all Californians to remember to completely fill out their voter registration card. ... Providing all necessary information will avoid complications when registering to vote.””