As the front door and face of government for the vast majority of citizens, motor vehicle departments (DMVs) have a critical role to play in protecting and strengthening our democratic process and institutions.
Although many states have long had DMV-based voter registration, the DMV came to play a nationwide role in election administration when Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The NVRA allows Americans to register to vote or update their registrations whenever they interact with a government agency, with the goal of increasing the number of citizens who register to vote and making sure that those citizens’ registrations are kept up to date. As part of this system, the law requires DMVs to incorporate voter registration services into their driver’s license application, renewal, and change-of-address processes. Because most Americans have a driver’s license or identification card issued by their state’s DMV, the DMV is central to the NVRA’s scheme of agency-based voter registration and gives the NVRA its nickname: “Motor Voter.”
Since Motor Voter’s passage, DMV registration services have been the single most important source of voter registration activity across the country in the jurisdictions where it applies. In the most recent reporting period, 45 percent of voter registration applications or updates came through the Motor Voter process. Although Motor Voter is the most common source of voter registration activity in the states, data suggest that Motor Voter may not yet have reached its potential. The number of eligible Americans registered to vote remains stubbornly low, ranging from 60 to 75 percent in any given presidential election year, which leads to depressed turnout rates: In the 2016 presidential election, turnout among eligible voters was only about 55 percent. When looking at registered voters, however, the picture changes: over 87 percent of registered voters participated in 2016. These statistics suggest that more eligible Americans will participate in our democracy if they are registered to vote. Ensuring full access to voter registration through DMVs is a part of this picture.
For states to realize the NVRA’s promise, they must make registering to vote and updating voter registration addresses an integral part of obtaining a driver’s license or state identification card. Experience has shown that how states integrate voter registration into their driver’s license application, renewal, and change-of-address processes can have a dramatic impact on the number of voters who take advantage of the opportunity to register to vote or update their voter registration address. Indeed, the attentiveness with which states design and implement their Motor Voter programs can dramatically affect whether DMV customers benefit from voter registration services.
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