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Press release/statement

Voting Rights Groups Move to Enforce 'Motor Voter' in California

Today, citing clear evidence that the State of California is violating its federally-mandated responsibility to offer California drivers and ID card holders the opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the global law firm Morrison & Foerster sent a pre-litigation notice letter to the California Secretary of State on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California, ACCE Institute, California Common Cause, the National Council of La Raza, and several individual California citizens.

Around the country, but on an especially large scale in California, massive numbers of citizens must jump through hoops that Motor Voter was intended to eliminate.

“It’s time for the Department of Motor Vehicles to stop dragging its feet and make voter registration easy and accessible for the millions of Californians who apply for or renew their driver’s licenses or ID cards every year,” said Helen Hutchison, President of the League of Women Voters of California.   

Under the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), California and most other U.S. states are required to treat a driver’s license application or renewal as a voter registration application if the applicant chooses to register to vote. If the applicant is already a registered voter, the State must update the existing voter registration with any new information supplied on a driver’s license application, renewal, or change of address form.  Such new information might be a name change, address change, or new political party affiliation.

According to a report issued today by Demos, one of the groups that signed the letter to California, the NVRA violations in California are part of a national problem. The report finds that these “Motor Voter” requirements are widely ignored in states all across the county, with the result, in many states, that only a small number of voters are registering through motor vehicles departments (DMVs).  According to the report, California has one of the lowest levels of DMV voter registration in the country.

Read the report: Driving the Vote: Are States Complying with the Motor Voter Requirements of the National Voter Registration Act?

“Motor Voter was supposed to make registering to vote through the DMV an easy access point to participating in our democracy,” said Stuart Naifeh, counsel in this matter and author of the Demos report. “Around the country, but on an especially large scale in California, massive numbers of citizens must jump through hoops that Motor Voter was intended to eliminate.”

Today’s letter details violations of the “Motor Voter” provisions of the NVRA by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and other state agencies and demands that the Secretary act immediately to bring the state into full compliance with the law or face litigation.  Among other problems, the letter describes how DMV procedures unlawfully require applicants to complete an entirely separate voter registration application and provide the same information required on the driver’s license and ID card forms. These violations, and additional problems with how change-of-address, mail, and online transactions are processed, impede rather than facilitate the ability of applicants to register to vote or update their registrations.

“California has one of the lowest rates of voter registration and voter participation in the country, and it is lowest among citizens of color,” said Delia de la Vara, National Council of La Raza’s Vice President for the California Region.  “Fixing Motor Voter in California could go a long way toward rectifying that disparity and strengthening our democracy.”

The state’s failures have real impact.  Until last year, Shelley Small, who is 62 and is one of the individual Californians named in the letter, had voted in every election since she was 19 years old.  In August 2014, Ms. Small went to the DMV to report that she moved from Encino to West Hollywood, and she asked for her voter registration address to be updated along with her license.  When she arrived at her local polling place in November, she was told she was not on the rolls and was turned away, unable to vote for the first time in her adult life. “I am a U.S. citizen. I am 62 years old. I have not missed voting in an election for 43 years. Three months later, I am still deeply upset by the fact that I didn’t get to vote in the last election. This has to stop so that no one else is kept from voting,” said Ms. Small.

“Every election, we hear stories like Shelley Small’s,” said Kathay Feng, Executive Director of Common Cause of California, which, along with other organizations, operates a voter protection hotline on Election Day. “Voters believe they have registered at the DMV only to find on Election Day that they are not on the rolls. It’s heart-breaking.”

“Access to voting is one of the most important civil rights issues of our day,” Javier Serrano, an associate in the Litigation Department of Morrison & Foerster’s San Francisco office, said.  “The NVRA is a key tool in fighting the disturbing trend of voter disenfranchisement in California and across the nation.”

“We work hard to make sure our communities are part of the democratic process,” said Christina Livingston, Executive Director of of ACCE.  “The DMV’s failure to follow the law has resulted in an increased burden on our families and on registration drives by organizations like ours to pick up the slack in disenfranchised communities.”

“We hope to work with California’s Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles to make registering to vote easy, simple, and accessible for millions of Californians when they apply for a driver’s license,” said Sarah Brannon, director of Project Vote’s Government Agency Voter Registration Program.  “It is time to upgrade voter registration in California to the 21st century and achieve the purpose of the NVRA.”

As Secretary of State, Secretary Alex Padilla is responsible for making sure the state meets its obligations under the NVRA.  As a state senator, Padilla sponsored a bill, never enacted into law, addressing this very problem by requiring the state to develop a paperless voter registration system that would easily allow voters to register to vote or update their voter registrations through the response to a single question followed by automatic transfer of voter registration information from the DMV to elections officials.

“California's recent fiscal difficulties cannot excuse its failure to provide seamless, NVRA-compliant voter registration opportunities at DMV,” said Lori Shellenberger, Voting Rights Director at the ACLU of San Diego, “For 13 years, California has been sitting on over 130 million in unspent federal dollars received under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) while other states have used these same funds to ensure their DMV offices are transmitting secure and accurate voter registration information to elections officials.”

In the letter, the voting rights groups advised that they are ready to work with California officials to modify the State’s procedures to afford the voter registration opportunities required by federal law. If the State fails to respond or take steps to comply with the law within 90 days of receiving the letter, the groups and the individual citizens have said they will bring a lawsuit to make sure the State fulfills its obligations.

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Nikki Cannon
[email protected]
(212) 485-6012