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Back in February, I wrote about a legislative proposal by Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill to join the small but growing list of states offering automatic voter registration to eligible residents. It didn’t happen in the legislature, but yesterday the SoS and the state DMV announced an administrative agreement to bring it to the Nutmeg State. The Hartford Courant has more:
The Department of Motor Vehicles and secretary of the state have worked out previous differences and signed an agreement to implement a “streamlined motor voter system” that will automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they go to DMV for a driver’s license or state-issued identification card.
The “memorandum of agreement,” signed Monday by DMV Commissioner Michael Bzdyra and Deputy Secretary of the State James Spallone, says the new system, under which the DMV customer would be registered to vote unless he or she specifically declines by choosing to opt out, would begin operating by August 2018.
Under the current program, the DMV customer is registered to vote only if he or she actively chooses that option.
The agreement is notable – both nationally and locally – in that it is proceeding despite the Legislature’s failure to adopt the proposal:
On Tuesday, Bzdyra and the state’s top elections official, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, jointly announced the agreement that accomplishes what Merrill proposed in a bill that did not win approval during the recently concluded regular 2016 General Assembly session.
They said Connecticut will be the first state in the nation to introduce automatic voter registration through this sort of agreement rather than via a legislative vote.
“We are very pleased with this agreement knowing that it will help bring more voters on the rolls in Connecticut. We are eager to work with Secretary of the State Merrill and her team on making us a state at the forefront [of] helping every eligible citizen register to vote,” Bzdyra said.
Merrill said: “This is a monumental event enhancing voting rights and opportunity in Connecticut, and a continuation of our rigorous efforts to bring new voters onto the rolls. This agreement also puts Connecticut alongside a vanguard of states that are leading the nation in the movement to register every eligible citizen. This is a proud day for our state, and I wish to thank Commissioner Bzdyra and his staff for their commitment.”
It’s also worth noting that there is a defensive element to this agreement, given federal scrutiny of Connecticut’s implementation of “motor voter”:
The agreement comes at a time when DMV, Merrill’s office and the state attorney general have begun discussions with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes of averting the justice department’s April 15 threat to file a federal lawsuit over alleged violations in the state’s existing motor voter program. It is unclear what effect the plan for improving the program will have on the justice department’s stance concerning the threatened lawsuit.
Under “motor voter” programs that federal law requires states to operate, when someone applies to the DMV for a driver’s license or renewal, that application must also include an opportunity to register to vote. Also, requests to the DMV for a change of address must also be forwarded to voting officials in applicants’ hometowns for updating of voter-registration information.
Earlier this year, the DMV responded to Merrill’s proposed legislative bill by saying its recent computer problems made this a bad time to try to expand the motor voter program. But the new agreement overcomes those misgivings.
The new system will take two years to develop, and will begin with immediate, short-term moves. Those include “a unified application for licensing and voter registration at DMV offices while the broader automated system is built,” officials said.
Also, the two agencies said they promise “stronger efforts to promote the motor voter law more widely in DMV offices and through DMV customer outreach,” including voter registration links in the DMV mobile app and mailings.
Whatever the motivation in Connecticut, however, it’s again remarkable that the roster of states offering automatic registration continues to grow. I’ll be curious whether other states facing DOJ scrutiny, a recalcitrant legislature – or both – look to Connecticut as a potential model for action. We’ll also need to keep an eye on implementation; DMV’s initial concerns weren’t likely addressed in just a few months, even though the agreement gives them two years to make it work. And finally, everyone will wait and see if this plan heads off a federal lawsuit over “motor voter”.
Still, kudos to everyone involved for coming together to find a solution that not only passes legal and technical muster but can also work for voters. Stay tuned …