Republican legislators Wednesday amplified their claims that Secretary of the State Denise Merrill bypassed the General Assembly by entering an agreement with the Department of Motor Vehicles for a “streamlined motor voter system” to automatically register citizens to vote when they go to the DMV to obtain or renew a driver’s license. At a press conference in the Legislative Office Building, Senate GOP Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said that after Merrill failed to get the legislature this year to approve a bill to establish the automatic motor voter registration system, she “went behind the backs” of lawmakers to negotiate a “memorandum of understanding” to implement the new system administratively. Merrill and the DMV defended the agreement later Wednesday. Under the new “automatic motor voter system,” DMV customers would be registered to vote starting in 2018 unless they decline by choosing to opt out. Under the current motor voter program that’s existed for two decades, DMV customers are registered to vote only if they choose that option.
Connecticut: Officials Tense, Tight-Lipped On Feds’ Probe Of State ‘Motor Voter’ Program | Hartford Courant
The U.S. Department of Justice’s April 15 threat to sue Connecticut over failures in its “motor voter” program — which is supposed to promote voter registration at Department of Motor Vehicles offices — resulted in a closed-door meeting this past Tuesday aimed at resolving the problem out of court. Under “motor voter” programs that federal law requires states to operate, when someone applies to the DMV for a driver’s license (or a license 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.
Nearly a dozen people met Thursday to discuss allegations that Montana is failing to fully comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, setting the stage for more meetings and further discussion, officials said. In a Dec. 18 letter, a group claims Montana has not fully complied with sections that establish clear voter registration obligations on the Motor Vehicles Department, which is overseen by the Department of Justice, and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
Advocacy groups and citizens sued North Carolina government leaders Tuesday over what they called a poor effort to fix previously disclosed problems that kept motorists and public assistance applicants from getting properly registered to vote. The state’s elections chief contends that many problems already have been addressed and registration levels are rebounding. The lawsuit in Greensboro federal court comes several months after watchdog organizations wrote elections and health officials and the Division of Motor Vehicles threatening litigation unless they rectified issues associated with carrying out the 1993 federal “motor voter” law. The concerns haven’t been addressed sufficiently, the lawsuit said, and now a court needs to intervene and ensure compliance.
Editorials: States Are Falling Short In Providing Voter Access | Brenda Wright and Adam Ambrogi/National Law Journal
Shelley Zelda Small is a 62-year-old Los Angeles resident who believes in voting as a civic duty and has voted in every election since she was 19 years old. So when she moved from Encino, California, to West Hollywood in August 2014, and reported her address change to the Department of Motor Vehicles, she made sure to ask the DMV to update her voter registration as well. But when she arrived at her local polling place last November, she was told she was not on the registration rolls and was turned away – for the first time in her life, Small lost her opportunity to vote. The good news is that, due to a new law approved this last month in California and advocacy by national and California-based voting rights groups, the DMV will be adopting an automated voter registration process that will, in most cases, seamlessly update voter registrations when voters report a move — solving the problem for Small and millions more like her. In mid-November, another state took a major step in the right direction. Alabama, conceding that it had never truly complied with a registration law, settled a case with the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreement made important changes to how the state motor-vehicle agencies support voter registration for eligible Alabama residents. The case is notable because the DOJ has not brought an action against a state under the “motor voter” provision of the National Voter Registration Act since at least 2002. California and Alabama were not alone in needing to improve its registration process. It appears that many states are falling short on their obligations to make voter registration widely accessible at DMVs and other agencies serving the public, according to an extensive investigation by Demos, a public policy group. Potentially tens of millions of eligible voters are being left off the voter rolls as a result.
Alabama, after more than two decades, finally will be in compliance with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Secretary of State John Merrill, speaking Monday at the Florence Rotary Club, said when he took office in January, he went to work on bringing Alabama in compliance with the so-called motor voter requirements. He said his goal is to have Alabama in full compliance by mid-2016. “We have three years to be in compliance. My goal is to be in compliance by the middle of next year,” he said. Alabama reached a memorandum of understanding a week ago with the U.S. Department of Justice to make voter registration available to anyone applying for or renewing a driver’s license.
Alabama officials were taken to the woodshed last week when they reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice on implementation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The law includes a provision called “Motor Voter,” which requires states let anyone applying for or renewing driver’s licenses also register to vote. Alabama leaders have lawlessly ignored that mandate since it passed, but were busted in September, when the DOJ threatened to sue. As the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, Principal Deputy Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange that the state had failed to comply with Section 5 of the law by not providing registration applications to those seeking licenses. Chastened for the perhaps intentional lapse, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and Secretary of State now have to quickly jump through a series of hoops to bring the state into compliance.
Alabama reached a settlement Friday with the Department of Justice and agreed to make changes to comply with the two-decade-old “motor voter” law designed to make it easier for people to register to vote. The settlement agreement comes after the Justice Department said in September that it as planning to sue Alabama after an investigation found that Alabama was not abiding by the requirements of the 1993 law. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “We commend the state of Alabama for working quickly and cooperatively with the department to ensure that eligible Alabama citizens can register to vote and update their registration information through motor vehicle agencies, with the convenience they deserve and the ease of access the law requires.”
As if our state did not look bad enough after the widely criticized decision to close driver license offices, there now comes the report that Alabama faces a lawsuit from the Department of Justice because it is not in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act – and never has been. That law, commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter Act,” was enacted in May 1993. Politically, that’s a lifetime ago. Jim Folsom Jr. was governor of Alabama. Bill Clinton was president of the United States. The purpose of the law was simple – to make voter registration easier by allowing people to register when obtaining or renewing driver licenses or when visiting state offices that provide public assistance. It was supposed to be a seamless process; individuals did not have to make a special request for registration. But Alabama has essentially ignored the act in many cases, acting as though it were some sort of optional proposal rather than the law of the land. Thus Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, has warned the state that a lawsuit looms.
Alabama has never fully complied with the federal “motor voter” act designed to allow people to register to vote at driver’s license offices, Secretary of State John Merrill acknowledged this week. Still, Merrill said, he hoped the state could avoid a federal lawsuit by working to implement the law now. “It’s like being pregnant,” Merrill said in a Monday telephone interview. “Either you’re fully in compliance with the law or you’re not in compliance. And we’ve never been compliant.”
Oklahoma residents who seek public assistance from various state agencies will be provided more opportunities to register to vote under the terms of a settlement agreement announced Thursday that would stave off a potential lawsuit over the state’s compliance with federal voting laws. Details of the settlement were released by the Oklahoma State Election Board and several voting rights advocacy groups that had voiced concerns about Oklahoma’s compliance with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.
National: States are ignoring federal law about voter registration. Here’s why. | The Washington Post
What federal voting rights law, according to the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, is the election statute most often ignored? It’s the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), a law that each year helps millions of citizens with either updating their voter registration records or applying to vote for the first time. Below I explain what the NVRA is, its impact and the challenges it has faced in being put into practice. The NVRA is often referred to as “Motor Voter,” but it is more complex than this implies. The NVRA requires states, among other things, to accept voter registration applications by mail and to offer voter registration services at government offices providing state identification and drivers’ licenses (hence “motor”), armed forces recruitment centers, and government offices providing services to people with low incomes or disabilities. This post focuses on the requirement to register voters at health and social services agencies (or, simply “agencies” in this post). This is a requirement that many states are ignoring or implementing poorly.
The era of the neighborhood polling place with its paper voter rolls and rickety booths isn’t quite over, but it is well on its way out in California. No tears will be shed here: It’s high time the state entered the 21st century. That’s the opinion of new Secretary of State Alex Padilla as well. Last week he unveiled his second proposal to encourage voter participation in California: a plan to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter and to encourage counties to set up voting centers for their voters to use, regardless of precinct, up to 10 days before election day.
Voting rights activists are threatening to sue North Carolina for failing to adhere to federal registration law. Attorneys for Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, and North Carolina residents forwarded a pre-litigation notice letter on Monday to State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach, N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata and Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Kelly Thomas alleging that the state Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t meeting voter registration obligations set by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The legislation, commonly known as the “Motor Voter Law,” requires voter registration services whenever a resident applies for, renews, or changes their address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. DMVs are then required to transmit the information to the appropriate election official within 10 days, or five days if the change of information is within five days of the close of registration.
A slate of civil rights groups put North Carolina on notice Monday, writing in a pre-litigation letter that the state must meet its voter registration obligations or risk a lawsuit. The letter alleges that the state’s motor vehicle and public assistance agencies are violating legal requirements set out in the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to provide voter registration services to citizens and transmit registration information to election officials. The legislation, signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton and commonly referred to as the “motor voter” law, delineates that state motor vehicle agencies must provide voter registration services whenever a person applies for, renews or changes his or her address on a driver’s license or government-issued identification card. It also requires public assistance, disability and military recruiting offices to facilitate voter registration.
This week, the law firm of Waters and Kraus LLP sent a demand letter to the Texas Secretary of State, informing him of his failure to meet the legal requirements of the National Voter Registration Act, and of his legal liabilities under that federal law. The law in question is Section 20504(a) of Title 52, Chapter 205, United States Code (text taken from uscode.house.gov):
(1) Each State motor vehicle driver’s license application (including any renewal application) submitted to the appropriate State motor vehicle authority under State law shall serve as an application for voter registration with respect to elections for Federal office unless the applicant fails to sign the voter registration application.
(2) An application for voter registration submitted under paragraph (1) shall be considered as updating any previous voter registration by the applicant.
Easy enough to understand, right? If you get a driver’s license, or renew a driver’s license, you get registered to vote, or you get your registration updated, assuming that you are legally eligible to vote.
It was appropriate that during the same week of commemoration and reenactment of the civil rights movement’s march across the Selma, Alabama, bridge that led to “Bloody Sunday” and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Oregon Legislature took steps to further advance the opportunity to vote. Under the “New Motor Voter” bill passed last week, Oregon, already a leader in encouraging voter participation through its vote-by-mail balloting, will have the most expansive voter registration system in the country. By providing automatic voter registration for any citizen obtaining a driver’s license who’s not already registered, the bill makes it easier for many to register, especially for poorer and younger voters who move a lot. An estimated 300,000 new voters could be added to the nearly 2.2 million currently registered voters.
California: Activists say California violates Motor Voter Act, lawsuit threatened | Los Angeles Times
Voting-rights advocates warned Thursday that they may sue California based on claims that the state is not complying with the so-called Motor Voter Act, a federal law mandating that states offer people an easy way to register to vote when they obtain their driver’s licenses. The law firm of Morrison & Foerster sent a “pre-litigation” letter to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California, the ACCE Institute, California Common Cause, the National Council of La Raza and several individuals.
A coalition of groups that advocate for voters’ rights is alleging that public assistance agencies in Arkansas are failing to provide voter-registration services as required under the National Voter Registration Act. Voting rights groups Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, Project Vote, and the Proskauer Rose law firm sent a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mark Martin advising him that Arkansas agencies must comply with the law or face litigation. The groups offered to work cooperatively with Martin and other state officials to achieve compliance.
A federal appeals court on Monday expressed skepticism over Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s contention that a federal commission must make voters who register using a federal form provide proof-of-citizenship documents required under state law. Kansas and Arizona are trying to force the federal government to add their requirements to federal voter registration forms mandated by the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the motor voter law. Arguing the case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Kobach said the Election Assistance Commission is required to add the state-specific instructions to the federal form. But Judge Jerome A. Holmes interrupted: “Oh whoa whoa whoa, there’s a big jump there.” Holmes said when the U.S. Supreme Court decided a similar case from Arizona last year, it said states could “request” that the commission add state-specific requirements to the federal form.
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 state of California has agreed to mail voter registration forms to nearly 4 million people who have signed up for insurance through its health care exchange after a threat of a lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday. The ACLU of California and others said they threatened to sue the state for failure to comply with the National Voter Registration Act, also called the Motor Voter Act. The law is designed to make it easier for voters to register by requiring there to be opportunities to apply at offices that provide public services. The ACLU said Covered California had provided no opportunities since it launched Oct. 1. The mailings must be completed by May 5.
Two of the fiercest political disputes between Washington and the states could soon come together in legal fights that involve tying the new federal health care overhaul to voter registration. Every state is preparing to open a health insurance exchange by Oct. 1. Whether these new agencies will offer voter registration as well as health care information is emerging as a potential fault line that could further divide states from one another and from Washington. The Obama administration and voting rights advocates say there’s no question the agencies must offer voter registration under federal law. But Republicans in Congress and in some states are pushing back, and even some election law experts aren’t so sure the question has an easy answer. So far, just three states have officially said they’ll link the exchanges and voter registration. But whether the rest will – or will be required to under federal law – is an open question that will likely lead to court battles and at least a temporary patchwork approach nationwide. “I don’t expect it to go evenly and don’t expect it to go well, initially,” said R. Doug Lewis, head of the National Association of Election Officials. “There’s not universal agreement about what can be done here, as you can imagine.”
Kansas: Democrats want to take stab at amending proof-of-citizenship voter registration law | Wichita Eagle
As the state Legislature prepares for a special session to rewrite an unconstitutional criminal-sentencing law, Wichita Democrats are planning to reopen the debate over a voter proof-of-citizenship law they maintain is equally unconstitutional. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who wrote the law requiring new voters to provide citizenship documents, said he thinks it would withstand court scrutiny, unlike an Arizona law that recently was overturned by the Supreme Court. And even if it didn’t, Kansas could create two classes of voters: those who provide the proof required by state law and could vote in all elections and those who don’t and who would be limited to voting only in congressional and presidential elections, Kobach said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Monday said he would offer an amendment to the Senate immigration bill to counteract a Supreme Court decision striking down state laws requiring voters to prove their citizenship. Cruz’s amendment, which he plans to attach to the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill being debated this week in the Senate, would allow states to require IDs before voters register under the federal “Motor Vehicle” voter registration law. The high court on Monday overturned an Arizona law requiring people to prove their citizenship if they wanted to register through that law. In a 7-2 vote, the court ruled in the case of Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. that state law was trumped by federal law and Arizona could not require voters to provide additional information.
Editorials: Gift or Gotcha: What to Make of Scalia’s Arizona Opinion | Janai S. Nelson/Huffington Post
On Monday — just over twenty years to the day that President Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act (affectionately known as “Motor Voter Law”) into law — the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s attempt to tack a proof-of-citizenship requirement onto the federal voter registration form was in violation of the Act. Given Arizona’s racial and ethnic demographics, the burden of this requirement fell heavily upon the state’s Latino and Native American voters. However, Arizona residents were given a reprieve — at least for now — by Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court’s staunchest conservatives, who authored the opinion in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.
Editorials: Pyrrhic victory for federal government in Arizona voter registration case? | Marty Lederman/SCOTUSblog
The Court, by a seven-to-two vote, today held that federal law preempts — that is to say, renders invalid — an Arizona law requiring voter registration officials to reject a voter’s application for registration if it is not accompanied by evidence of U.S. citizenship above and beyond the attestation of citizenship the applicant has made on the federal “Motor Voter” form. Lyle is almost certainly correct, however, that what appears at first to be a significant victory for the federal government might in fact be something much less than that — indeed, might establish important restrictions on Congress’s authority to determine eligibility for voting in federal elections, in a way that implicates current and potential future federal legislation.
It may seem unthinkable now, but as late as the 1980s, Americans in many states had only one option if they wanted to register to vote: Show up in person at a central registrar’s office, which might be open only during restricted business hours and located far from the voter’s home. Even in places where voter registration applications could be distributed outside the registrar’s office, strict limits often applied — such as in Indianapolis where groups like the League of Women Voters were allowed to pick up only 25 voter registration applications at a time. Overly complicated and restrictive procedures meant that fewer and fewer eligible voters were registering — and without registering, they couldn’t vote. Voting rights advocates knew that America must fiercely protect the freedom to vote for all citizens, regardless of race or privilege. So, they began a multi-year campaign to make voter registration more accessible. Their efforts paid off in 1992 when Congress first passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), only to see President George H.W. Bush veto the bill. Not to be discouraged, the movement kept fighting, and 20 years ago this week, Congress passed the NVRA and President Clinton signed it into law.
The U.S. Supreme Court may be holding the political future of the United States in its hand as it tries to decide how far the states may go in requiring identification from those who attempt to vote. Last week, the justices heard argument on whether Arizona or any state may require proof of citizenship for voter registration. An eventual decision in the case could shape the national political landscape for some time. Seventeen states have enacted laws requiring the presentation of some type of government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license, before voting. The Brennan Center for Justice said those 17 states account for 218 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The Arizona case pits the state requirement for proof of U.S. citizenship against the federal “Motor Voter” law that requires only filling out a form to register for federal elections.
Editorials: The Other Big Voting Rights Case Before the U.S. Supreme Court | Juan Cartagena/Huffington Post
On March 18, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Arizona’s incessant drive to suppress its Latino population can make it impossible for newly naturalized citizens to register to vote by mail. The case is Arizona v. The Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. and it represents Arizona’s attempt to thwart the will of Congress when it established national norms for voter registration in federal elections with the National Voter Registration Act of 1995. The NVRA established for the first time in history a government obligation to register voters by requiring agency-based registration. While simplified to its common name, the Motor Voter law because it includes motor vehicle agencies, the NVRA is unique in that it also requires the government to affirmatively register low-income voters who apply for traditional welfare, food stamp and Medicaid benefits. In New York the state law implementing the NVRA also includes unemployment insurance agencies, for example. Finally, it completely changed the landscape on street voter registration by requiring all states to accept mail-in voter registration forms for federal elections, which in turn, was applied to registration for all elections. This also was a significant reform in states that previously required street registration campaigns to be attended by official state registrars, and on limited hours.