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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can the Motor Voter Law Still Help Increase Turnout?

Stuart Naifeh has a lengthy post Democrats should find of interest up at Demos, “Driving the Vote: Are the States Complying with the Motor Voter Requirements of the National Voter Registration Act?” Naifeh opens with a snapshot of the current reality:

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”) with the goal of increasing voter participation in elections by requiring states to make voter registration more accessible. One of the key provisions of the NVRA, known as “Motor Voter,” requires state motor vehicles departments (“DMVs”) to incorporate voter registration into the driver’s license application, renewal and change-of-address processes. Despite the popularity of this mode of voter registration, the “Motor Voter” provision is not performing up to its potential, and, in many states, implementation of the statute’s requirements is severely wanting.

Naifeh says there are “radical variations among states in the numbers of motor vehicle department transactions that result in a voter registration application…Some states are generating voter registration applications from a large proportion of those who come into the DMV to obtain or update a driver’s license or ID card while in others, the DMV registers only a tiny fraction of voters engaging in licensing or ID card transactions.”
While many would say that the motor voter legislation has been a failure, judging by overall registration statistics in recent years, Naifeh believes the law still has great potential: “According to Demos’ analysis, over 18 million additional voter registration applications could be submitted through DMVs in a two-year period if lower-performing states increased their performance to the level of states at the 75th percentile…”
Further, adds Naifeh, “the most successful states typically use technology solutions to further streamline the process, reduce errors, and ensure voters remain registered when they move.” He devises complex metrics to evaluate the states’ compliance with the motor voter law in light of the wiggle room states are allowed in their implementation policies and procedures.
He concludes that Michigan (“Robust Integration of Voter Registration”) and Delaware (“Effective Use of Technology”) lead the states in using the motor voter law effectively. The worst are California (“Separate Voter Registration Application Requiring Duplication”) and Nevada (“No Integration, Duplication, and Confusing Forms”). In between, a broad range of states have plenty of room for improvement
Naifeh suggests a range of “model procedures” states can use to improve their compliance with motor voter legislation. He concludes,

Twenty years after the enactment of the NVRA, many states are failing to offer meaningful opportunities for individuals to register to vote during motor vehicles department transactions. To realize the NVRA’s promise of “enhanc[ing] the participation of eligible citizens as voters,” states must take seriously Section 5’s mandate to make registering to vote an integral part of obtaining, renewing, or updating a driver’s license or state identification card. The states that are most successfully implementing Motor Voter provide evidence that by adopting cost-effective, commonsense procedures and relying on existing technology and infrastructure, this goal is attainable…

It appears Naifeh has done the most serious research to date on how to make the NVRA live up to its considerable potential. If more Democratic leaders in the underperforming states will study and accept his challenge with the seriousness it deserves, the party — and the nation — would benefit significantly.

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