California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is refusing to turn over public documents that could shed light on problems with the state’s Motor Voter program, which launched earlier this year to automatically register people to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Motor Voter has come under fire after thousands of Californians were improperly registered to vote, and it remains unclear whether any non-citizens voted this year.
The Sacramento Bee last month submitted a records request for written communications to or from Padilla and his chief of staff, Bill Mabie, regarding a batch of approximately 1,500 registration errors.
Padilla’s office released 268 pages in response, though half the pages were newsletters he received from news organizations that referred to the registration errors. His office said it did not have to disclose additional material. “Some attorney-client privileged communications and other documents reflecting the deliberative process and official information privileges were not included in the page count, along with records that reflect the candid evaluations and exchange of ideas that assist the decision-makers in making their final policy and other executive decisions.”
An attorney working on behalf of The Sacramento Bee disagrees with Padilla’s assertions.
“I don’t think it’s a legitimate response to a (Public Records Act) request,” said Karl Olson, a partner in Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Olson LLP. “They’re just kind of lumping together any possible exemption that they can think of, including many that it would seem obvious could not possibly apply. … Unfortunately, it’s not that unusual that you get this kind of a … response.”
Olson on Thursday sent a letter to Padilla demanding the release of additional records.
“Seeing how the Secretary of State did or didn’t handle registration errors is a matter of intense public interest,” he wrote. “The interest in disclosure of records relating to this clearly outweighs any interest in non-disclosure.”
Padilla has declined to be interviewed. “It is our policy not to comment on pending investigations,” he said in a statement.
Padilla declined to explain what investigation he was referring to. The Department of Finance is now auditing the DMV. The two agencies said they are not aware of any other ongoing investigations beyond the audit.
Emelyn Rodriguez, executive director of Californians Aware and an attorney specializing First Amendment cases, said there appears to be a lack of transparency.
“What’s kind of surprising is they’re not willing at all to provide any details or speak to this serious issue and allegation of irregularity in the voting,” Rodriguez said. “There should be some response there, and that’s troubling, quite frankly. He’s a public official. He’s accountable to the public. There should be some statement about what’s being done.”
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, has been a vocal critic of the DMV. He fell one vote shy in August on his request to have state Auditor Elaine Howle investigate the DMV. Patterson plans to renew calls for an audit in January and questioned Padilla’s response to The Bee’s inquiry.
“It is suspicious,” Patterson said. “If there’s nothing to see here, then open up the file, show the light. Unfortunately my experience in government has been that if there is something to see, oftentimes there’s all kinds of reasons why only this information will be allowed and that information is kept secret. When it comes to voting, there should be no secrets at the Secretary of State’s Office. Period.”
Among the 268 pages of material is a Nov. 9 letter Padilla sent to state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. Moorlach had demanded answers in September, soon after 23,000 erroneous voter registrations were disclosed.
“The DMV informed us that certain individuals that declined to respond or answer no to any one of the five eligibility questions were incorrectly registered through no fault of their own,” Padilla wrote to Moorlach. “We have notified county election officials to cancel these records.”
The five eligibility questions include one asking people to confirm they are “a U.S. citizen and a resident of California and at least 18 years old.” Padilla said in his letter the inaccurate registrations do not constitute voter fraud because they were the result of errors made by the DMV and California Department of Technology. He told Moorlach his office “continues to explore various strategies that can help voters identify and report irregularities.”
Moorlach is not pleased with the response and questioned the integrity of the vote in the last election.
“There’s a shadow over the results that make a lot of constituents wonder what is going on, and I don’t have any evidence other than I have to assume that the Democrats did a great job of getting ballots to the Registrar of Voters,” Moorlach said. “All I’m concerned about is a fair fight. I don’t want to go to a knife fight and end up looking at machine guns.”
He’s now considering introducing bills that would place stringent voting requirements that would likely reduce turnout. His proposals are unlikely to see the light of day in the Capitol, given historic Democratic advantages. Among the ideas Moorlach is floating is eliminating Motor Voter completely, clearing the rolls of any person who hasn’t voted in the last four years and implementing strict ID requirements.