Almost everywhere in America, exercising your fundamental right to vote means first being registered to vote.
At Demos, we have been fighting for years both in and out of the courts to ensure that eligible voters can get and stay registered. We enforce a federal law known as the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires that people be provided with the opportunity to register to vote and update their registration information when they interact with public assistance and motor vehicle agencies.
Section 5 of the NVRA requires that motor vehicle agencies provide people with the opportunity to register or update their voter registration information any time they apply for, renew, or update the address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. Since Demos began its Section 5 enforcement work in 2015, at least 9 states have taken steps to improve their Section 5 compliance. The majority of these changes resulted from Demos’s litigation, advocacy, and research work. Data indicates that the average number of voter registration applications processed by motor vehicle agencies dramatically increased in each of these states.
In our most recent effort to enforce Section 5 of the NVRA, Demos filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Missouri last Friday, asking a federal court to order the state to provide motor vehicle customers with the voter registration services required by federal law. The NVRA mandates that when motor vehicle customers update the address associated with their license or identification card, the state must also update their voter registration information, unless the customer says otherwise. Yet for changes made online and by mail, Missouri is not updating individuals’ voter registration with the new address. This violation has a real impact on the ability of Missouri residents to cast a ballot and have their vote counted.
Every year, Missouri voting rights advocates and election protection workers report that one of the main causes of confusion at the polls—and actual disenfranchisement—is that voters show up to the polling place but are not registered at their current address. Under state law, such voters are unable to cast a regular ballot. And the ballots of those who move from one election jurisdiction to another—including people who move from St. Louis City down the street to St. Louis County—are discarded entirely. This rule results in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of people of color and low-income individuals, who are less likely to own homes and tend to move at higher rates.
In 2016, more than 750,000 people moved within Missouri—245,000 of them to a different county. Every time one of these individuals reported a change of address with the state motor vehicle agency, their voter registration information should have been updated to reflect their new address unless they requested that change not be made.
We are seeking relief that would:
Securing relief in Missouri and increasing compliance with the NVRA nationwide are necessary steps if we wish to reduce the number of voters turned away from the polls and create a more robust and inclusive democracy.