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February 23, 2018

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Voting rights advocates: DMV is breaking the law by failing to register voters

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Steve Marcus

People wait to be called to a counter Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010, at the Department of Motor Vehicles office on East Sahara Avenue.

Voting rights advocates claim the state is violating a federal law enacted more than 20 years ago requiring the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to register voters.

Attorneys representing Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and others sent a letter this week to Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and DMV Director Terri Albertson detailing areas of non-compliance. Across the country, implementation of the law, often called the “motor voter” law, has stagnated since it was passed in 1993, voting rights advocates and law experts say.

Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, Demos, Project Vote, the ACLU and the League of Women Voters now are partnering to push for compliance in Nevada, as several of the organizations have done in other states.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about people registering,” said Jocelyn Sida, Nevada state director of Mi Familia Vota. “It’s our right. We have that right. We are a country that doesn’t have to dodge bullets to go to the ballot box.”

The groups argue the Nevada DMV is failing to comply with the law by requiring people to fill out separate applications for a driver’s license or ID card and for voter registration. In Nevada, driver’s license applications have a box people can check to indicate they want to register to vote. If the box is checked, DMV employees give the applicant a separate voter registration form to fill out and turn in.

But the advocates say that process doesn’t always run smoothly. DMV employees sometimes forget to give people a voter registration form, even if they checked the box. The advocates also complain that people have to re-register to vote when they move counties and cannot update voter registration information online through the DMV’s change-of-address portal.

The secretary of state’s office said in a statement it is committed to ensuring all Nevadans are able to register to vote in line with federal law.

"Our office is currently reviewing the information and is looking into the issues raised in the letters,” Cegavske said. “Our office has been communicating with the DMV for several months to establish a time line for the modernization of the DMV's voter registration system and is working towards a solution."

The advocates' letter threatens legal action if the state doesn’t cooperate.

Scott Novakowski, an attorney with Demos, said the groups hope to come to an understanding with the state and map out short-term and long-term solutions for the problems.

Nevada still is mired in a lawsuit filed in 2012 by some of the same groups concerning a different part of the law, which requires public assistance agencies to register people to vote. Novakowski said negotiations on that matter are ongoing.

While such issues aren’t unique to Nevada, voting rights advocates say they pose more of a problem here.

“Nevada is, I think just looking at procedures, one of the worst" states, Nowakowski said. "Most of their procedures are facially noncompliant.”

Christopher Mann, a professor at Skidmore College who has written about the law’s implementation at DMVs across the country, agrees. He found that Nevada falls in the bottom 25 percent of states required to comply with the law.

“Nevada is not the bottom, but it is in the category that I would call — if there is green, yellow and red — in the dark yellow, orange band,” Mann said.

Because of Nevada's transient population, one would expect an even higher number of applications processed through the DMV as new residents move to the state. But that's not the case.

“It’s especially alarming," Mann said. "Even if (Nevada) were in the middle of the pack, it would sort of beg the question why it’s not in the top. It’s definitely not appearing where we expect it to appear.”

By contrast, Michigan and Delaware excel in their implementation of the law, Mann said. Voting rights advocates frequently point to the two as examples for other states to emulate.

When applying for a driver’s license in Delaware, people can use an electronic terminal to complete driver’s license and voter registration applications simultaneously. In Michigan, information from driver’s license applications is used to generate a pre-printed voter registration form with all of the applicant’s information already filled out.

Other states have processes similar to Nevada’s, with separate driver’s license and voter registration forms. They include California, which is in the process of changing voter registration systems at the DMV. When the process is complete, information from driver’s license applications automatically will be sent from the DMV to the secretary of state’s office for verification of citizenship, unless the applicant opts out.

Several others states, such as North Carolina, are in the midst of litigation concerning the law, while others, such as New Mexico, have become compliant after settling lawsuits.

Legal actions, or even the threat of litigation, can be effective motivators to get states to comply with the law, Mann said. Most states want to comply, he said; but the process takes time and money.

“In Delaware, the commissioner of elections said the hardest part of the process of implementing this system was getting the attention of their DMV,” Mann said. “One of the things the lawsuit does is create that political will in corners where it may not exist.”

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