Jonathan Eldridge wanted to vote for president.
The Santa Rosa resident had registered to vote – or so he thought – at a Department of Motor Vehicles office several months ago. But when he called the Sonoma County registrar last week to find out why he hadn’t received any ballot information, Eldridge was told there was no record of his registration.
Eldridge's only option was to come to the registrar's office, apply for a last-minute court order allowing him to vote and hope that a judge would approve it.
"I was appalled," said Eldridge, 44, who works for a computer forensics company. "I was like, 'How can someone deny me the right to vote?' I couldn’t believe it."
County registrars are all too familiar with the problem. They say every year, they hear from a smattering of frustrated citizens who tried to register at the DMV, only to find themselves ineligible to vote. Sonoma County had 25 applications for court orders to vote this year. Santa Cruz County had about 60, mostly from people who tried to register at DMV offices.
There have been problems since the federal "motor voter" law took effect in 1995, requiring the DMV and other agencies to offer applications, said Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County's clerk and registrar.
Pellerin's motto, she said, is: "You don't come to me to register your car; don't go to DMV to register to vote."
To register through the DMV, a would-be voter must check a box on his or her driver's license application and fill out a registration form on the second page, according to department spokesman Artemio Armenta.
"Sometimes people either don’t mark the box, or they don’t fill out the form," Armenta wrote. "This has been the most common reason people do not get properly registered."
In fact, if an applicant fills out the form but doesn't check the box, "the DMV technician would not have any reason to look at the voter registration form," Armenta wrote.
"We always remind customers that if they have not received registration materials within 30 days to contact their local County Registrars Office," he wrote.
Eldridge said a DMV staffer had asked him if he wanted to register and reviewed his paperwork before he left.
"Their DMV employee whose job it is to make sure you fill out all the forms screwed me," he said.
Even if applicants do everything correctly, some applications fall through the cracks, Pellerin said. She encourages aspiring voters to register online instead.
"Have you ever been to the DMV?" Pellerin said. "Does it look really neat and clean and organized? Would you trust leaving a piece of paper there that it’s going to find its way to me?"
It's hard to pinpoint the exact problem with the process, said Jill LaVine, Sacramento County's registrar. "There’s so many gaps in the whole thing," she said.
DMV spokesman Armenta noted that the department processes 8.25 million driver's license applications each year.
Those who find themselves in Eldridge's position can fill out a petition for a court order swearing under penalty of perjury that they tried to register. In Santa Cruz County, that's usually enough for the judge, Pellerin said. But other registrars said judges sometimes require proof, like a receipt from the DMV. LaVine said some judges will deny the petitions.
"If the voter has some form of evidence they usually get their ballot counted," Sonoma County Assistant Registrar Gloria Colter wrote in an email.
Eldridge didn't keep a receipt and was incensed that he would need one.
"I said, 'I am a taxpayer, a citizen and a disabled veteran,' " he said, "so do not tell me that my vote has any chance of not counting."
Figuring it was a long shot, he didn't apply for a court order and didn't get to vote.
"I would love to know how many thousands of votes didn’t go through because of that circumstance," he said.
The California secretary of state's office encourages voters who have problems with their applications to contact the state's voter hotline at 800-345-VOTE.
"While the Secretary of State's office has no authority over other government agencies and how they conduct their work, Secretary of State staff would remind them of their important duty to promptly hand over voter registration applications," spokeswoman Shannan Velayas wrote in an email.
View this story on California Watch