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Alabama's Motor Voter Program Gets a Tune-Up

Stuart Naifeh

Alabama’s driver’s license agency has been getting a lot of attention lately — for good reason.

Alabama’s driver’s license agency—the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA)—has been getting a lot of attention lately for its decision to shutter 31 of its driver’s license offices in rural parts of the state for all but one day a month. These closures will make it harder for Alabamans living in those areas—who are disproportionately African American—to get government-issued photo ID, which, under the state’s strict voter ID law, they will need to cast a ballot in next year’s Presidential Election.

But the loss of opportunities to obtain acceptable voter ID is not the only voting rights problem at ALEA.  Another issue—one that, until this spring, had gone largely unremarked for the last 22 years but that may have an equally significant impact on voter participation—is ALEA’s wholesale failure to provide opportunities for Alabamans to register to vote during driver’s license transactions, as required under the “Motor Voter” provisions of the National Voter Registration Act. 

In February, Demos put out a report that identified Alabama as among the worst states for compliance with the Motor Voter law. According to data Alabama reported to the Federal Highway Administration and Election Assistance Commission, ALEA takes in only one voter registration application for every 83 licenses it issues (it is unclear where even this small number of voter registration applications comes from given that the state never bothered to implement Motor Voter at all). Compare that with the rate of one voter registration for every two licenses issued in the states with the best Motor Voter programs. 

This fall, Alabama’s Motor Voter procedures are getting a long overdue tune-up.  In September, the U.S. Department of Justice finally took notice of ALEA’s NVRA violations and sent the state a letter threatening legal action unless the state took swift action to correct them.  It was the first time since 2002 that the Federal Government has taken action to enforce the NVRA’s Motor Voter requirements and one of only a tiny handful of such actions in the history of this important law.  Then, last Friday, the DOJ and the state of Alabama signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) spelling out the steps Alabama will take to come into compliance with the law.

The MOU promises important changes to how ALEA offers voter registration for eligible Alabama residents, including an electronic registration system, integration of voter registration into online driver’s license services, robust oversight and data collection, and a comprehensive training program for employees. Significantly, the MOU requires that the state contact eligible but unregistered driver’s license holders and offer those individuals in assistance registering to vote.  The MOU is a vast improvement over prior DOJ settlements under the NVRA, and both the DOJ and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill deserve praise for acting so quickly to bring the state into compliance with the law.

As we describe in our report, however, Alabama is far from the only state whose Motor Voter program needs attention, and the DOJ must not let another dozen years go by without ensuring these states are following this important law.  Voter registration is a major obstacle to voter participation, and as the Pew Research Center has reported, the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates among modern democratic nations. Robust enforcement of Motor Voter has the potential to significantly close this gap and strengthen our democracy.