[Image courtesy of simpsons.wikia.com]
I’ve covered the issue of broken connections between DMVs and election offices before, but a new article in USA TODAY is highlighting just how big the gaps are in registering voters at motor vehicle agencies:
When county clerks in New Mexico tried to figure out why voter registrations had slowed to a trickle this spring despite an upcoming primary, they made a surprising discovery: The culprit was a new online voter registration system at motor vehicle offices.
Introduced with fanfare in January, the new system required drivers to go to a separate computer kiosk at the motor vehicle office to complete their voter registration. That proved to be too much hassle for many potential voters; it also violated the federal “motor voter” law.
New Mexico, which has gone back temporarily to using paper voter registration forms, was trying to improve its motor voter performance in response to a 2010 court order. In most states, no one knows how well motor vehicle agencies comply with the mandate to register voters because no one is really keeping track. But a growing consensus says they are failing.
Poor implementation of the National Voter Registration Act, the 21-year-old law that requires motor vehicle offices to register voters, is emerging as a problem when almost every aspect of voting is coming under scrutiny, either because of controversial voter identification laws or long lines at the polls. The bipartisan commission formed by President Obama to investigate long voting lines in the 2012 election called the motor voter law “the election statute most often ignored.” Motor vehicle departments “are supposed to play the most important registration role,” the commission said. Instead, they “are the weakest link in the system. … Some DMVs appear to disregard the law.”
Because so many voters and would-be voters have business at the DMV, breakdowns in registration create numerous downstream problems at the polls:
More than 130 million voted in the 2012 election, and, according to the presidential commission, 10 million of them waited more than half an hour to vote. As many as 16 million people are inaccurately registered. In some states, up to 15% of voting records are inaccurate, the commission said. About 50 million Americans, one-quarter of the voting-eligible population, aren’t registered at all.
Millions of people get to the polling place and discover their voter registration doesn’t exist or has not been updated along with their driver’s license, says Chris Thomas, election director in Michigan and a member of the presidential commission.
“The lines and delays on Election Day are due in part to the failure of this program,” Thomas says. “There’s been a lot of disenfranchised voters over the last 20 years that this (law) has not been implemented.”
Up until now, the problem has eluded analysis because data collection is so poor:
Last spring, the Pew Charitable Trusts Election Initiative tried to find out how well states were doing at complying with the motor voter law. What they found was that states kept such poor data that in many cases it was impossible to tell.
“The fact that government doesn’t have its act together is costing taxpayers money,” says David Becker, Pew’s director of election initiatives. “It’s causing voters not to have the information they need.”
The problems include incompatible or antiquated technology, spotty training of employees, poor record-keeping and lack of interest on the part of leadership, election experts say.
Registering voters “is being viewed as a secondary responsibility of the motor vehicle division,” says Maggie Toulouse Oliver, clerk of Bernalillo County, New Mexico’s most populous county. “In fact, it is just as much a primary responsibility as is licensing and registration.”
Using EAC survey data, however, a clearer (if not precise) picture emerges:
According to federal Election Assistance Commission surveys taken each election cycle, less than 30% of voter registrations come through motor vehicle departments.
Those reports note that data from many states are incomplete. In California, for instance, some county clerks who collect voter registration forms don’t track where they come from, so it is impossible to compare, for instance, how many people updated their driver’s license with how many people updated their voter registration …
In the swing state of Ohio, 24% of registrations came through the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, according to the Election Assistance Commission report. Secretary of State Jon Husted says that until 2012, computer systems in his office and at the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles could not exchange information. Now they do so daily, he says. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that respect, and thankfully the BMV has cooperated.”
[A map of states and the percentage of voters registered via DMVs is embedded at the top of the article.]
Other states are looking to improve their performance as well:
New Mexico’s motor vehicle division plans to introduce software next year that will allow licensing and voter registration simultaneously, as required by the motor voter law. In June, it returned to printing out voter registration forms, asking voters to complete them by hand, then sending the stacks of paper to county clerks. The agency sent follow-up letters to 7,300 New Mexico residents who had visited the motor vehicle agency since January but didn’t complete a voter registration form, division spokesman S.U. Mahesh said …
[Delaware’s] Cohan, the president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, says that at the group’s annual conference this week, there will be an entire day devoted to motor voter compliance. A dozen states, including New Mexico, have asked for information about Delaware’s system, which uses an electronic signature pad like those in retail stores for voters to provide their information, Cohan says.
The incentive to do so will intensify as advocates (and litigators) step up the scrutiny – and the pressure:
Voting rights groups have brought numerous lawsuits against states for failing to offer voter registration through public assistance agencies, which the motor voter law requires. They are becoming more interested in suing motor vehicle agencies.
“We’ve begun to get pretty interested in them,” says Estelle Rogers, legislative director of Project Vote, one of the groups that sued New Mexico. “Our old complacency about how well it works at the driver’s license agency … I don’t say that sentence so much anymore.”
Technological advances provide another opportunity for progress. As more and more states launch online voter registration systems, the capability to link those systems to existing state and local agencies offers the promise of a seamless, “one stop shop” approach for voters.
Over the years, my anecdotal experience has been that DMV-related problems are the top complaint among voters who experienced registration issues at the polls. You can bet this article – and the work behind it – is going to push the debate forward. Stay tuned!