OnaRoll fmt

november 2013

on a roll

The Hill explores more efficient state voter registration systems

Shortly after the 2012 general elections, rumors began circulating about which candidates might become the next political superstars and which party might take control of Washington in the 2014 and 2016 elections. Despite 2013 not being an election year, the electoral process grabbed the attention of a few policymakers on the Hill. Legislation focusing on ways to clean up the elections process and safeguard voters’ rights has been introduced in both chambers. This new legislation would require proof of citizenship for registration to vote in elections for federal office, modernize voter registration and promote access to voting to certain demographics of citizens, and improve the operations of the Elections Assistance Commission. The list goes on.

Of particular importance to the AAMVA community is one piece of legislation: House bill 2115, the Voter Registration Efficiency Act. Proposed by House Administration Committee Chair Candice Miller (R-MI), H.R. 2115 was introduced earlier this year to streamline the elections process by aligning state voter registration rolls with actual voter registrations tied to state residence. The Act had merely been introduced in the House, and a June 4 committee hearing was held on it. The bill has been scheduled for mark-up as well. As a former secretary of state, Chairman Miller’s familiarity with the elections process and fervor on the subject runs deep, adding to the potential momentum for movement.

Registration inaccuracies

Voter registration rolls run rampant with erroneous information. According to the 2012 Pew Center on the States’ Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient report, approximately 24 million voter registrations (one in eight registrations) in the United States have significant inaccuracies. More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters; approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state; and 12 million records have incorrect addresses. These inaccuracies result from many states still maintaining manual voter registration rolls, not comparing voter registration lists with other data sources and not having automated processes in place to identify inaccurate records.

The Voter Registration Efficiency Act attempts to remedy registration inaccuracies, such as the ones cited by Pew, by placing the responsibility of voter registration reporting on motor vehicle agencies.

The bill would require an applicant for a new driver’s license in a new state to indicate whether he or she intends for the state to serve as his or her “residence for voting registration purposes.” The new state’s motor vehicle agency is then required to notify the motor vehicle authority identified by the individual’s previous state of residency. The motor vehicle agency of that previous state shall then notify its election officials that the individual no longer intends for the state to serve as the individual’s residence for purposes of voting. Pursuant to the Voter Registration Act, the state of application is required to convey that individual’s voter registration to the state’s elections board.

Potential for impact

The aim of H.R. 2115 is laudable, but, operationally, it has repercussions for motor vehicle agencies. At the outset, while preserving the notion that motor vehicle agencies function as the guardian of voter registration information, the Act assumes that motor vehicle agencies have the capabilities to transmit these records. For instance, a data field regarding “residence” (whether for voting purposes or not) is often not collected by state motor vehicle authorities. A new field would need to be incorporated into current systems to accommodate the requirements of this legislation. State election boards would be more suitable bearers of this “residence of voting purposes” because their mission fits more closely with possessing this information, and ultimately they are the stewards of this function.

Just as extra resources are necessary to integrate new data fields into existing systems in order to comply with the conditions of this Act, the process established would place significantly more demands on already overburdened agency resources. Scope of operation, budget and efficiency are elements of motor vehicle agencies that must be kept in mind for administrators. As of late, agencies are swamped with not only performing primary functions, but also submitting to peripheral functions for compliance with legislative and regulatory mandates. Unless the process described in the Act is automated, these new requirements would augment the demand on motor vehicle capital.

Given the diversity of state governments, each jurisdiction possesses unique data systems and processes that provide a national mélange. No two state data systems are the same, nor do uniform operational processes exist across all jurisdictions. In all circumstances, these systems and processes came into being as a result of each state’s motor vehicle agencies matching their objectives with their own needs. A national protocol, such as the one proposed, would impact each jurisdiction operationally and administratively. Realignment for voter registration purposes would require that the states allocate resources to develop new data system components or new systems altogether, and acclimatize themselves to the new processes to compare voter registration rolls cross-jurisdictionally.

Alternative solutions

With the burdens that would be placed on state motor vehicle agencies, an alternative to the process described in this bill would be to harness existing and developing technologies to circumvent these likely complications. Pew Charitable Trusts has developed the Electronic Registration Information System (ERIC) to verify voter registration information. Pew’s ERIC website explains that it is a voluntary, automated system that provides back-end comparisons of voter registration rolls with state motor vehicle records to increase the accuracy of the rolls. When a search is run, ERIC reports back to the states where inaccuracies are discovered, eliminating additional process requirements from the motor vehicle agency. States can then clean up voter registration rolls under federal and state law, targeting their efforts based on solid data. The system was inaugurated in 2012 by seven states: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington. Additional states have on-boarded this year.

Combined with other issues taking prominence on Capitol Hill this fall, such as the government shutdown, immigration and the conflict in Syria, progress will continue to be spotty for H.R. 2115. While the ramifications of the legislation as currently written could be significant, AAMVA realizes its role in the broader scope of addressing voter registration inefficiencies. Motor vehicle agencies can help play a part in the alignment of voter registrations, but the alignment must remain a responsibility of the state as a whole, and the critical mission functions and communicative capabilities of each state’s executive agencies must be taken into consideration.