By Bob Egelko
Voting-rights advocates are threatening to sue California — which has one of the nation’s lowest voter-registration rates — unless the state starts complying with a 20-year-old federal law that requires the Department of Motor Vehiclesto make it easy for people to sign up to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or identification card.
The state’s top elections official says he won’t stand in the advocates’ way.
“We’ll use this as a fire under the seat of DMV officials and see if we can’t get action sooner rather than later,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who took office last month, said Thursday after receiving notice of the proposed lawsuit.
Organizations that include the League of Women Voters and California Common Cause said they would go to federal court in 90 days to require the state to live up to the National Voter Registration Act. Also known as the “motor voter” law, the act was intended to make state motor vehicle offices one-stop shops for would-be drivers and voters.
“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.
Following the law
The DMV said it would review the issue with Padilla’s office, but contended it is already following the law.
“Under federal law, DMV provides eligible applicants with an opportunity to register to vote when obtaining or renewing a driver license or identification card,” Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement.
But attorney Lori Shellenberger of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the advocacy groups, said the federal law tells states to allow applicants to sign up for driver’s licenses and voting on a single form, filling out their names, addresses and dates of birth only once. She said DMV offices instead attach a voter registration card to the license form and tell applicants they can detach it and fill it out separately.
When licensed drivers change addresses, Shellenberger said, the federal law requires states to relay their new location to election officials unless the driver chooses not to do so. She said the DMV has a hit-and-miss process of complying with that requirement for drivers who move within a county, and disregards the law altogether when they move to another county, leaving it up to the driver to obtain and submit a change-of-residence form to the registrar.
“We get calls on election day from people who registered to vote at the DMV, filled out a (change-of-address) form, left it there, and they never appeared in the election files” at their new location, Shellenberger said.
In one such case, Shelley Small, 62, said she went to the DMV in August to report that she had moved from Encino to West Hollywood, both in Los Angeles County, and asked for her voter information to be updated. But when she got to her new polling place in November, her name wasn’t listed and she was unable to vote for the first time since she turned 18.
“This has to stop so that no one else is kept from voting,” said Small, who signed the advocates’ letter on the proposed lawsuit.
Low registration rate
Shellenberger said the DMV’s practices contribute to California’s dismal voter registration rate of 65 percent, the nation’s sixth-lowest, with more than 6 million eligible voters unregistered. Only 12 percent of California’s voter registrations come from the DMV, compared with 85 percent in Michigan, she said.
Padilla, a state senator before his election as secretary of state in November, was the author of a law requiring other public agencies, including veterans’ offices and the Covered Californian health insurance exchange, to offer voter registration services to their applicants.
He also sponsored a bill last year that would have required the DMV to use a single form for driver’s licenses and voter registration and to forward the applications electronically to elections officials. The DMV said the measure was expensive, and it failed to pass.
“We’re encouraged that Padilla is going to be a very good partner,” Shellenberger said.