Florida Motor Vehicle Offices are Violating Federal Voting Rights Law

Release Date: 
October 19, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - Citing clear evidence that Florida residents have been denied the opportunity to register to vote or update their registrations, attorneys from voting rights groups Project Vote and Demos sent a pre-litigation notice letter today, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVF), alerting the state that it is violating Section 5 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).

Today’s notice letter calls on Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, and Terry Rhodes, Executive Director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), to take immediate steps to ensure that the Florida DHSMV complies with the voter registration requirements of the NVRA.

Commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, the NVRA requires most states—including Florida—to provide citizens with a variety of opportunities to register and update their voter registration during interactions with certain government agencies. Section 5 of the NVRA requires that Florida’s DHSMV provide voter registration services whenever an individual applies for, renews, or changes their address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card, regardless of how that transaction takes place.

“The NVRA includes very specific criteria to ensure that eligible citizens can register and vote, and these requirements are not optional; they apply whether individuals conduct their business with DHSMV in person, online, or by mail,” said Archita Taylor, election counsel for Project Vote. “By ignoring these requirements, DHSMV is denying Floridians their federally-guaranteed rights, and potentially robbing individuals of their votes.”

Today’s letter cites substantial evidence that DHSMV is neglecting its NVRA obligations and violating federal law in two important ways. First, the letter alleges that DHSMV’s “GoRenew” internet portal—which allows individuals to renew their license or state I.D. online—violates the NVRA because it does not offer customers an opportunity to register as required by the NVRA. Second, the letter states that DHSMV is failing to meet its voter registration obligations with respect to change-of-address transactions completed in-person, by mail, and online.

The NVRA requires an “opt-out” system, in which an individual who changes their address through DHSMV will automatically have their voter registration information updated unless they specifically decline the update. None of the DHSMV address change methods comply with this requirement. Indeed, the DHSMV online portal acknowledges that changes of address will not also update an individual’s voter registration, in utter disregard of the NVRA requirement. According to the letter, this obligation ensures voters do not lose their ability to vote when they move.

“Low-income voters tend to move at higher rates than the general population and, thus, need to update their voter registration information with much greater frequency,” said Naila Awan, counsel for Demos. “A comprehensive plan that corrects the state’s change of address procedures will be critical at ensuring that these voters—an already marginalized population—are able to fully participate in the political process.”

According to the letter, the groups are willing to meet with Florida officials to assist in developing a comprehensive plan to address the problems. In the absence of such a plan the groups plan to initiate litigation.

“Given Florida’s history of voter suppression laws, much of which were struck down by a federal judge in 2012 after litigation initiated by the League of Women Voters of Florida, we will remain vigilant and will demand that the State of Florida follow the NVRA,” said Pamela Goodman, President of the LWVF. “The NVRA requires the obtaining of a driver’s license to begin the process to automatically register someone to vote, and that renewal of a driver’s license or change of address be sent automatically to the supervisor of elections so that voter registration information is accurate. Instead of complying with the NVRA, the State’s documents literally state that the renewal of a license and change of address will not automatically update the voter’s registration information. This is a violation of the law. The League and its counsel stand ready to provide guidance to the State of Florida to rectify these defects and urges that all corrective action be taken immediately.”