The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

The law in 44 states requires motor vehicle agencies to offer citizens the opportunity to register to vote when they come in to get a driver's license. The motor vehicle offices are then required to send those registration applications to the appropriate elections agency.

As the law reaches the ripe old age of 21, how’s it going? Very well, thank you—in Delaware and a few other states. In most states, though, it’s hard to tell if things are going well or poorly because data are scarce. What little does exist indicates there may be “many a slip twixt the cup and the lip” on this.  (If you don’t know that old saw, look it up.)

At least, that’s what was said at NCSL’s Forum last week, and is documented in a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, "Measuring Motor Voter: Room for Improvement."

At the Forum, we heard via Skype from Jennifer Cohan, director of the Division of Motor Vehicles in Delaware, one of the states lauded for getting the registrations across the gap. She was motivated to tackle the job of voter registration after a legislative hearing in 2008 when a lawmaker brought in stacks of voter registration applications that citizens had completed but had never made it into the registration rolls, and demanded an explanation. She didn’t want to face that wrath again, so she got busy working with her elections counterpart, Elaine Manlove, to figure out a solution in 2009. 

Delaware created an e-signature pad—like you sign at the grocery store—to be used at the DMV that allows the citizen to say “yes” to registration and to manage the process independently. The data from the DMV, such as date of birth, address and more, are then automatically sent to the elections people. Cohan says “our solution was brilliant in its simplicity.” 

In neighboring Maryland, state election director Linda Lamone reported that she was able to move to a “seamless” system for receiving data from the DMV only after providing a  scathing report to the General Assembly. In it, she reported that all too often, voters were disappointed to find out they weren’t on the voter rolls, even though they had “registered at the DMV.” Once the lawmakers realized the problem was a failure in the transmission of data between the DMV and the State Board of Elections, they set about fixing it.

What can legislators do to help their DMVs make this onerous, but legally required, task easier? Cohan says they can “bring us together, require cooperation, and allot some funding.” It cost Delaware $600,000 eight years ago, and saves the First State $200,000 on the election side and an additional $50,000 on the DMV side. Delaware is happy to share its procedures, its code and its enthusiasm with anyone who asks.

Wendy Underhill is the program manager for elections policy at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.