Fact Check: Did Motor Voter tilt midterm elections against California Republicans?

California Republicans in the wake of severe midterm election losses called foul on new state laws that made it easier for people to register to vote, contending an accompanying rise in first-time voters contributed to the GOP’s defeat in seven heavily contested congressional districts.

Ousted Republican Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock and Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel each in separate exit interviews with McClatchy argued that programs like Motor Voter, which automatically registers people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, tilted elections against them.

Now, in data obtained by McClatchy, numbers show at least one of those laws likely had no effect on those outcomes in six of the seven races, but Moter Voter might have cost one California Republican his seat.

The claims

Denham and Walters were not the only Republicans to blame California voting laws for their losses. President Donald Trump, former House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and former California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel have pointed to new voting in laws in California as reasons for losses in the seven districts.

“There’s no evidence of ballot box shenanigans. No need. Democrats know it’s easier to erode voter integrity laws than to stuff ballot boxes,” Steel wrote in The Washington Examiner.

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He and others pointed to so-called ballot harvesting, a term the GOP applied to people who collect others’ filled out absentee ballots and turn them in to election officials, Election Day voter registration and Motor Voter as examples of programs that helped boost Democratic turnout.

Ballot harvesting is legal in California, though not in many other states. There was a controversy in North Carolina when a person admitted to ballot harvesting to favor a Republican candidate in the state, where the practice is illegal.

Some have also made unsubstantiated claims that undocumented immigrants voting in California turned the tides. San Francisco allowed undocumented immigrants to vote in certain local elections for the first time in 2018, but not on any national races like House elections. There has been no evidence that undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the 2018 election.


Figures on ballot harvesting and same-day registration are not available, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. Registrars don’t have a code to track ballot harvesting, and wouldn’t typically know who is mailing in someone else’s ballot. Data on same-day registration is flawed because some people changed aspects of their registration on Election Day, such as party affiliation, but were already registered.

But figures on who voted after being newly registered through Motor Voter are available from each congressional district.

Mitchell’s analysis shows that Republicans would have lost six of the seats even without Democrats gaining new voters through Motor Voter.

The exception is former Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who was defeated by Democrat Rep. TJ Cox for the 21st congressional district around Fresno.

In that race, which Cox won by 862 votes, there were 1,765 voters who were newly registered by the DMV. But even then, the vast majority of that number would have had to vote for Cox over Valadao for Motor Voter to be considered a deciding factor.

“Less than 15 percent of those voters were Republicans, 40 percent were Democrats,” and the remaining were not affiliated with a political party, Mitchell said.

He added that people who registered through Motor Voter could have voted in last year’s election even if the program did not exist. They simply would have to register by mailing in a form, going to a county elections office or clicking on a state registration website.

“That registration is more Democratic than the base registration, but it’s not like everybody who registered that way was a Democrat,” he said.

In the other six races, Democrats’ winning margin was greater than the number of people newly registered under Motor Voter.

For instance, Denham lost to Democratic Josh Harder in the Modesto-centered 10th Congressional District by 9,990 votes. Only 3,683 votes came from people newly registered under Motor Voter in that district.

The second closest margin was the 39th congressional district south of Los Angeles, where Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros defeated Republican candidate Young Kim. Cisneros won by 7,611 votes. Newly registered people cast 3,540 ballots in the district.

In every other flipped district, the margin of victory was greater than 10,000 votes. Newly registered people who voted didn’t comprise more than 5,300 votes in any of those districts.

“People are overstating it if they say (Motor Voter) had any impact in this election cycle,” Mitchell said. “But by 2022, it might go from 3,000 in a district to 30,000. So that might be an extra 15,000 voters, which could make a difference.”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.