States and Election Reform | The Canvass: March 2015


Linking Driving and voting Records

Image of a two silver chains linked by a blue link.When you last moved or changed your name, did you change your driver’s license? How about your voter registration? If you are like most people, you took care of your driver’s license in the first couple of months, but voter registration … maybe not until right before an election. Even worse, maybe you showed up at the polls thinking you were registered, only to find out you were not.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA, aka the “motor voter law”) requires agencies that provide driver’s licenses in 44 states to also provide citizens a chance to register to vote or update their registration every time they come in to get their licenses or otherwise transact business. (States that offered same-day registration in 1993—Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming—were exempt, along with North Dakota, which does not have a voter registration requirement.)Blue and red graphic with a check mark and text: "Motor Voter" National Voter Registration Act of 1993

Since then, motor vehicle agencies have become the single largest source of voter registrations around the country, with 32.4 percent of the total, according to The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act, 2011-2012. The percentage varies greatly from state to state.

It’s the law—and yet problems in compliance crop up frequently. For instance, a Baltimore Sun investigation in 2011 showed that fully a quarter of voter registration forms in Maryland never made the move across town from motor vehicle offices to voter registration offices. Maryland isn’t alone; NVRA compliance is “the biggest travesty in the voter registration world,” says Amber McReynolds, Denver’s director of elections. Last month, California was threatened with a lawsuit for its record on “motor voter.” And the liberal advocacy group, Demos, notes that states aren’t doing so well in its February 2015 report, Driving the Vote: Are States Complying with the Motor Voter Requirements of the National Voter Registration Act?  

In most states, though, it’s hard to tell if things are going well or poorly because data are scarce. At least, that’s what the report, Measuring Motor Voter: Room for Improvement, from The Pew Charitable Trusts, says: “Results show that almost none of the states covered by the law can document the degree to which their motor vehicle agencies are offering citizens the opportunity to register to vote or update their registrations.”

The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report, released in January 2014, says basically the same thing: “Some DMVs appear to disregard the law. Others erect impediments to the seamless transfer of registration data to election offices managing statewide registration lists. This noncompliance leads to preventable inaccuracies in the voter registration lists. Voters who think they registered or updated their address at the DMV show up at polling locations only to find out they are not registered or are in the wrong polling location.”

The PCEA’s solution is that “States should seamlessly integrate voter data acquired through Departments of Motor Vehicles with their statewide voter registration lists,” and the Republican National Lawyers Association’s response to the PCEA report “strongly agrees.” It adds: “Doing so, would allow a registration application completed at a DMV to be electronically transmitted to the appropriate registration official.” To do so takes the right programming, a shared data structure, intergovernmental collaboration and legislation to allow data to be shared within a state.

Image of part of a keyboard with a blue key stating "register"When true electronic transmission happens, it is great for the election side of the equation, saving time and money on data entry. It may be great for the motor vehicle agencies, too, if it saves employees time during each customer transaction. Electronic transfer helps keep voter rolls accurate … and that means fewer voters are asked to vote on provisional ballots, the most expensive ballots to process. Over half of all provisional ballots are cast because the prospective voter can’t be found on the voter rolls, according to Provisional Ballots: An Imperfect Solution, also from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Where It's Working Well: Delaware

Gray silhouette of the state of DelawareDelaware is noted for its method of sending voter registrations across the bureaucratic gap—and the legislature played a key role. According to Jennifer Cohan, Secretary of Transportation in Delaware, she was motivated to find a way to improve NVRA compliance after a legislative hearing in 2008. A lawmaker brought in stacks of voter registration applications that citizens had completed but had never been entered into the registration rolls; he demanded an explanation. Cohan didn’t want to face that wrath again, so she got busy working with her elections counterpart, Elaine Manlove. “Our solution was brilliant in its simplicity,” says Cohan.

Now, every Delaware DMV employee reads a script, including a requirement to ask if the customer would like to register to vote or update his or her registration. If the answer is “yes,” the customer works on an e-signature pad—like we all sign at the grocery store—to answer questions about citizenship and party affiliation. Because they are answering on the pad, voters are not announcing their party choice out loud. The registration application is automatically sent to the election officials, and, from Cohan’s perspective, the best part is that the DMV employee touches no paper.

Besides holding an angry hearing, what else can legislators do to help their motor vehicle agencies and state election officials work together? Cohan says they can “bring us together, require cooperation, and allot some funding.” It cost Delaware $600,000 to implement its program, money that came from Delaware’s federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds. The state saves $200,000 on the election side and an additional $50,000 on the driver’s license side each year.

Gray silhouette of the state of Michigan.And in Michigan ...

In the Great Lakes State, electronic transfer of voter registration isn’t an issue because the motor vehicle office and voter registration rolls both draw from the same database. That may be because the driver’s license agency and election administration are both part of the same chain of command—that of the secretary of state. Michigan statutes also require that the same address be on record for both driving and voting; in practice, that means that when an address is updated for one of those purposes, it is updated for the other as well.

That linkage is important. “A key component is linking our driver and voter information, which allows us to update motorists’ official address for both driver’s license and voting purposes, as well as making sure there is only one driver’s license and voter registration for each voter,” says Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Because the data is linked, the number of provisional ballots used in Michigan was not much over 1,000 in the 2014 election; it is not uncommon for states to have 10 times, or even 100 times, that many.

More Legislative Ideas

It is unlikely that legislators in other states will reorganize the executive branch to make a good linkage like Michigan’s—and they don’t have to. States can ensure that not only is the letter of the federal law met, but that the transfer of these registrations is completed efficiently and in a timely manner. Examples:

Photo of Representative Gil Keith-Agranan.Don’t let a driver’s license transaction be completed unless the voter registration question is addressed. In Hawaii, HB 401 would require that an application for an identification card or driver’s license could not be completed without the customer either registering or actively declining to do so and that data be electronically transferred between agencies. “A lot of the bills we’re trying to move forward on voter registration and elections are motivated by the fact that Hawaii has had declining voter turnout,” says Representative Gil Keith-Agranan. “Anything that makes it easier to vote is something that we’re looking at.”

Authorize the exchange of information within the state government. Nebraska enacted a bill in 2014 that says, the “Department of Motor Vehicles, in conjunction with the Secretary of State, shall develop a process to electronically transmit voter registration application information.” The same bill authorized online voter registration.

Try “opt out” registration. Oregon’s legislature has sent HB 2177 to the governor, a bill that directs the Department of Transportation to provide electronic records of potential voters to the Secretary of State, who will then register them and send them instructions on how to decline registration and how to choose a party affiliation.

Link existing online voter registration programs through motor vehicle agencies. Arizona, the first state to have online voter registration, uses the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division to house and maintain its online voter registration system. Twenty-four states either have online voter registration or have authorized it.

Upgrade the state’s data collection efforts. North Carolina assesses its NVRA data collection annually. According to Pew’s Motor Voter report, “The evaluation includes a level of detail that allows the state to report in-depth data on voter registration activity at all NVRA-mandated facilities in every county across the state, including new registrations, updates, corrections, duplicates, invalid applications, and confirmations.”

Include other agencies that are covered by the NVRA in electronic data transmission too. Maryland has moved to a “seamless” system for transmitting data from its motor vehicle offices to state election officials, following the Delaware model. This year, HB 1049 would require other agencies that provide voter registration applications, along with higher education institutions, to implement fully electronic systems.

Final Thoughts

Citizens are routinely face to face with their government in just two places: the DMV and the polling place. No surprise, then, that they may assume that the two are linked. Legislators can help make that linkage by ensuring their states are in compliance with the letter and intent of the federal “motor voter law.” It’s even a chance for a win-win-win: voters, local election officials and those who manage motor vehicle agencies can all end up happy.

Questions Legislators Can Ask About "Motor Voter" Compliance

  • Graphic of several blue question marks of different sizes.How much time does it add to a driver’s license transaction to deal with voter registration? Does it add one minute, five minutes or more?
  • How quickly do registrations gathered at the DMV show up on voter rolls?
  • Is there a script for DMV employees to use when talking about voter registration? For instance, do they ask “Would you like to register to vote?” or “Would you like to register or update your registration?” Adding “update” to the script can help keep voter rolls clean.
  • How is a registration application transferred from the DMV to election officials? Electronically? In paper batches? Can this be automated?
  • What would it take for DMV data to be made compatible for electronic transfer to the election side?
  • How many licensing and ID transactions at motor vehicles offices result in voter registration transactions?
  • What percentage of all voter registrations come through “motor voter”?
  • How often do motor vehicle administrators and election administrators talk together about this process?

NCSL Conference Will Examine Elections Technology

A banner promoting NCSL's Policy and Elections Technology Meeting, June 3-5, 2015, Santa Fe, New Mexico.NCSL is pulling together sharp elections policy minds to examine technology-related  issues during a conference June 3-5 in Santa Fe.

The gathering is geared toward legislators, legislative staff, election officials and experts in the fields of voting, technology and security.

  • Voting technology 101
  • A report on NCSL’s Elections Technology Project
  • Recommendations from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration
  • The impact of legislation on voting system design
  • Alternative voting methods and implications for technology
  • Testing and certifying voting systems
  • The use of technology for post-election audits
  • Recounts and resolving disputes
  • What is pushing change in the way ballots are cast.

For more information, contact Katy Owens Hubler at 303-856-1656 or


Image of a red, white and blue dialog bubble that reads "for NCSL 2015."In cases where a voter has submitted an absentee (or mail) ballot and then dies before Election Day, is the ballot counted?

Some states are silent on this issue; others address it directly. Of those that address the question, four states count the ballot: Arkansas, Connecticut (if the voter was in the armed forces), Florida and Montana. Four others have explicitly repealed language preventing election officials from counting absentee ballots of voters who died, effectively permitting these votes to be counted: Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota and New Mexico. In addition, North Dakota states that the death of an absentee voter after casting an absentee ballot does not constitute grounds for rejection of the ballot. By either statute or attorney general opinions, eighteen states say that the ballots are not to be counted. As a practical matter, it is difficult or impossible to retrieve a voted ballot after it has been cast, so administrative rule may offer leniency on this question.

Legislative Action Bulletin

Image of a partial dictionary page showing the definition of legislation.Last month, The Canvass looked at this year’s bill introductions relating to elections, focusing on the big issues (voter ID, online voter registration, early and absentee voting and Internet-assisted voting). This month, we’ll take a quick look at two issues that fit into the category of election politics more than election administration.

The Electoral College

The year before a presidential election is always a good time for lawmakers to think about the Electoral College, and this year is no exception.

Bills to divvy up Electoral College votes by congressional district rather than the traditional winner-takes-all approach used in 48 states: Illinois HB 262, New York AB 2225, and Virginia HB 2230 and SB 786, both of which failed.

Bills to join the National Popular Vote compact, which allows states to pledge all of its electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote: Arizona SB 1024, Michigan SB 88, Minnesota HB 1171, Nebraska LB 112 (which has been “indefinitely postponed”), Oklahoma HB 1686 and Oregon SB 680 and HB 3475.

Bills to pull out of the National Popular Vote compact: Maryland HB 63, Massachusetts HB 568 and New Jersey AB 2827 and SB 1681.

Straight-Ticket Voting

Legislatively speaking, straight-ticket voting (aka straight-party voting) is surprisingly hot this year—at least among Republicans, who introduced all the bills listed below, with the exception of the Missouri bill.

Bills to eliminate straight-ticket voting: Iowa HB 4 and SB 66; Indiana HB 1008 (which has passed the first chamber); Michigan SB 13; Texas HB 25, HB 1288, HB 1444 and HB 1555; and West Virginia HB 2116.

Bills to establish straight-ticket voting: Kansas HB 2108 (failed), Missouri HB 249 and New Hampshire HB 185.

One Big Number

A graphic showing "one big number 192."192. That’s the number of people who have participated in the NCSL Elections Technology Project’s state-based meetings. Legislators, legislative staff and election officials from eight states—Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin—met in their own states.

The meetings began with a field trip to a well-run elections office and continued with discussions about how technology does or doesn’t play a role all the way through the elections process.

A few topics came up over and over: the costs of running elections and buying equipment, online voter registration, the difficulty in recruiting poll workers, a lack of clarity at the federal level on voting system standards, aging statewide voter registration databases as well as aging voting equipment, and an interest in peripheral equipment such as electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand printers.

From the Chair

Photo of Senator Jim Whelan.Senator Jim Whelan is the chair of the State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee of the New Jersey Senate. He came to the legislature in 2006, after serving as mayor and council member for Atlantic City for two dozen years. The Canvass spoke with him on March 9.

  • My fundamental approach is that we should maximize the convenience to the voting public while maintaining the integrity of the election.
  • I recall last fall talking to some students who said “why can’t we use our iPad and vote?” We’ve got to recognize the world we live in—it’s an electronic-driven world, so it’s time to at least take a look at this.
  • At this point, I have a bill that will create a study group to look at the future of elections in New Jersey and what we can do to make it more convenient for voters while ensuring the integrity of the voting process.
  • In terms of Hurricane Sandy, I am unaware of any election results anywhere up and down the coast where anyone can say, “If it hadn’t been for Sandy ....” However, the storm did point out the need for contingency plans.
  • We gave our school boards the option to switch school board elections from late April to the November elections. We worked with the school board representatives and county clerks and election officials, and we came up with something all sides can live with. They’re the ones on the ground that have to make it work.

Read the full interview with Senator Whelan.

The Election Administrator's perspective

Image of County Clerk Julie Freese.Julie Freese is the county clerk in Fremont County, Wyo. With 41,000 residents, Fremont is the fifth most populous county in the Cowboy State. Its 9,266 square miles—larger than six states—include the town of Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park, where a river disappears into the side of the mountain and reappears a quarter-mile later, ranch lands, public lands and the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Canvass spoke with Freese on February 27.

  • In our county, elections are big because we have so many special districts and the Wind River Indian Reservation, and we elect commissioners by district. Elections rank right up there with budget.
  • It’s easier to look a voter up in an e-poll book and, if someone is changing his or her address, the e-poll book would automatically tell the poll worker the right ballot style. That is huge for us. The downside is that some judges have said “if you go to that, I’ll have to quit,” because they’re scared of it.
  • I am also concerned with the apathy of our young folks, in terms of volunteering in their community and getting involved in the electoral process. We are looking at a couple of programs including using student election judges. At one point, we had a group of 30 saying they’d come, and only eight actually served. I need to find ways to reach those folks. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
  • I realize legislators know more than the average person about elections, but we live and breathe it. Here in Wyoming we have a good rapport with the Corporation Committee (the committee of jurisdiction for elections). When they have an idea, we don’t just say “No”—we say “Let us work with you on that.”
  • We always try to keep open about what we do. People want to trust that their vote counts, and they do when they know the system is transparent.

Read the full interview with Freese.

worth noting

  • National Public Radio’s Pam Fessler encapsulated what’s being called the “impending crisis” in voting technology in this four-minute radio segment.
  • “I’m a millennial, and I came today certain we just needed to move on to iPads or whatever for voting, and be done with it. Now, I’m wondering if KISS—keep it simple, stupid—is the way to go. When I was stationed in Afghanistan, people voted on paper, and then had their thumb dipped in purple. It worked.” —Kyle R. Miller, legislative assistant to Pennsylvania senator Anthony H. Williams, after touring Dauphin County’s election office with the NCSL Elections Technology Project
  • A redistricting case out of Arizona was heard in February by the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue: if the constitution says a legislature must do redistricting, can a state, through a vote of the people, delegate that responsibility to a non-legislative commission? NCSL filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the Arizona Legislature.
  • NCSL gets asked often enough about whether non-residents can vote in local elections that we’ve posted a Web page providing the answer, and information on the rare cases when non-citizens can vote in local elections.
  • We’ve also added a page that points you to the elections-related publications we’ve produced over the last several years: magazine articles, blog posts, briefs and plenty to keep a reader going through a long afternoon.
  • The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is up and running again, after years without a quorum. On March 19, it is holding a roundtable to discuss its priorities. NCSL’s Katy Owens Hubler will participate in this webcast event. Anyone—including Canvass readers—can send comments on the EAC’s mission and priorities at any time.
  • North Dakota, the black sheep among states in that it does not require voter registration, would consider joining the rest of the flock if Representative Corey Mock’s bill, HB 1302, is enacted. The bill, which has passed out of the House and is now in the Senate, would ask for an interim committee study.
  • NCSL has a musty-smelling copy of Election Administration in the United States, still the standard-setting book on, well, election administration in the United States. It was written in 1934 by the diligent Joseph P. Harris. So far, no one has had the temerity to update his work. Reading the hardback version—or the PDF version—helps put any modern-day election discussions in perspective.

from ncsl's elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team."If you liked this month’s lead story, join us for a May 1 webinar on how legislators can help smooth the transfer of voter registration applications between their motor vehicle agencies and their election officials.

Registration isn’t open yet, but soon will be. Registration is open for an NCSL conference, Policy and Elections Technology: A Legislative Perspective, in Santa Fe on June 3-5. We hope you’ll come.

In the meantime, if you have elections-related tales, good or bad, we would love to hear them. Thanks for reading.

—Wendy Underhill and Katy Owens Hubler


The Canvass, an Elections Newsletter for Legislatures © 2015 | Published by the National Conference of State Legislatures | William T. Pound, Executive Director

In conjunction with NCSL, funding support for The Canvass is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Initiatives project. Any opinions, findings or conclusions in this publication are those of NCSL and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Links provided do not indicate NCSL or The Pew Charitable Trusts endorsement of these sites.