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Republicans Sue California, Charging Ineligible Voters Are on Voter Rolls

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Harmeet Dhillon, photographed during a press conference at her firm's office in San Francisco on April 24, 2017. Dhillon is bringing the case on behalf of three Republican voters. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Three Republican voters are suing California's secretary of state, charging that Democrat Alex Padilla is violating the National Voter Registration Act by failing to ensure that only eligible voters are placed on the voter rolls.

The federal lawsuit on behalf of the voters, two of them naturalized citizens, is being brought by high-profile GOP lawyer Harmeet Dhillon — a national committeewoman for the Republican National Committee. She has also sued the state over the recent law requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on the California primary ballot.

Padilla rejected the suit as a partisan attempt to suppress voter turnout.

The lawsuit alleges that under California's so-called Motor Voter law — which automatically registers Californians applying for a driver's license or identification card at the DMV — people are being placed on the voter rolls without the secretary of state verifying that they are citizens. It's not the first problem for the Motor Voter system, which Republicans have been critical of since its inception.

"The National Voter Registration Act requires all states to make a determination of eligibility of voters who are placed on the voter rolls for federal elections before they enroll them," Dhillon said. "California refuses to use the data in its possession to determine citizenship eligibility, which is a prerequisite to vote in all federal elections. So we believe that this failure violates the National Voter Registration Act."


Dhillon charged that Padilla's office does make sure that felons and people who have moved are not improperly registered, but does not have a system for checking to make sure that a voter is a citizen, beyond looking to see that the applicant checked a box attesting to being a U.S. citizen.

Padilla disputed the claims in a written statement, saying the lawsuit represents "a fundamental misrepresentation of the National Voter Registration Act."

In an earlier letter to the plaintiffs, Padilla's office argued that the act requires voters only to attest to their own citizenship and does not require his office to obtain further proof of citizenship. On Tuesday, Padilla accused the plaintiffs of trying to scare people out of voting.

"The plaintiffs claim they are protecting voters, but this is nothing more than an underhanded attempt to bring their voter suppression playbook to California," he said. "As we have seen in other states — most recently in Kansas and Texas — these efforts only serve to disenfranchise thousands of eligible citizens. California remains committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections, empowering citizens to participate in democracy, and defending the right to vote.”

Dhillion stressed that the lawsuit is not taking aim at individual voters and argued that the state is actually putting undocumented immigrants at risk of violating the law by not providing a backstop to ensure they are not improperly registered to vote.

"We believe that it's important that the most populous state in the country get its act together and make sure that they are not putting people in peril, frankly, by mistakenly enrolling them on the voter rolls and then telling them they have a right to vote," she said, noting that residents of other states have been prosecuted for felonies for improperly voting, and that it can hurt someone's chances of becoming a citizen later.

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Dhillon called the issue a "civil rights matter" and a nonpartisan issue. But it does play into an unsubstantiated narrative of large-scale voter fraud that's been pushed by President Trump and other Republicans. Trump has repeatedly and falsely claimed that millions of Californians illegally voted in 2016, costing him the popular vote.

Dhillon, as an RNC member, is often called upon as a surrogate of the Trump White House and campaign, but on Tuesday rejected the idea that the suit could help Trump in 2020.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the president's re-election bid. Let's be very clear," she said, noting that Trump has little chance of winning California's electoral votes next year. "It is a bipartisan issue and the president doesn't control what California is doing and not doing, and I will also add that there are red states not doing their duty as well."

This isn't the first problem for California's Motor Voter law since 2018, when California began automatically registering people to vote. Last year, the DMV acknowledged that tens of thousands of people had been improperly registered and that some were assigned the wrong party preference. A few months later, the state also admitted that it failed to transfer hundreds of voter registration applications before the Nov. 6 election, and after being sued, agreed to investigate the problem.

And questions remain about whether noncitizens voted in 2018.

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