California voting rights groups announced Tuesday they had filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Transportation for failing for comply with a federal law that makes it easier for people to register to vote.
The National Voter Registration Act requires that driver’s license applications and renewal forms also serve as a federal voter registration form. The lawsuit ― filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by the ACLU of Northern California, Demos, Project Vote and others ― alleges the state is not letting residents adequately register to vote when they renew their driver’s license by mail. When Californians renew their licenses, the complaint says, they have to fill out a separate form to register to vote or stay registered. On that form, they must repeat much of the same information they provide to the DMV, including their name, driver’s license number, social security number, date of birth and address.
“The goal of the NVRA was to make voter registration easier and more seamless by integrating the information already collected by the DMV to get people registered,” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said in a statement. “It’s an embarrassment that in 2017, more than 20 years after the law was enacted, California DMV is still violating the law by making millions of people jump through hoops to become voters.”
People who renew their license in person can address their voter registration on their renewal form. In Fiscal Year 2015-2016, about 1 million people applied for renewals by mail, while 3 million applied in person, according to data from the California DMV.
“It is simply unacceptable for the DMV to deny seamless voter registration to millions of Californians who renew their licenses by mail,” Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California, said in the statement. “While we appreciate the work the DMV did to create an integrated voter registration process for people who go to their offices or renew their licenses and IDs online, others should be given the same opportunity.”
In October of 2015, following a year of very low voter turnout in the state, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law that will automatically register people to vote when they go to the DMV. Oregon, which was the first state to adopt automatic voter registration, has already seen increases in the number of people registered since implementing the law.
A 2015 report by Demos found that California had one of the country’s the lowest ratios of DMV voter registration applications to DMV transactions, between 0.01 and 0.1.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California, ACCE Institute, California Common Cause, and the National Council of La Raza. Activists have been threatening to bring such litigation in the state for the last two years, and the lawsuit notes the plaintiffs have been working with state officials to bring them into compliance with NVRA for in-person and online registration during that period.
“California has been in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act for decades,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said in a statement. “Today’s lawsuit serves as an unfortunate distraction from ongoing joint efforts by the Secretary of State’s office and the DMV to further improve the voter registration process in California, which already exceeds the voter registration obligations set forth in the National Voter Registration Act.”
“The Secretary of State’s office and the DMV remain committed to meet the needs of all Californians and to enhance voter registration opportunities for the millions of eligible Californians who do business with the DMV,” Gonzalez added.
Sam Mahood, a spokesman for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D), said Padilla would continue to make voting easier.
“I remain committed to strengthening voting rights, and ensuring all eligible California citizens can participate in our elections,” Padilla said. “The Secretary of State’s office will continue working diligently with stakeholders and the DMV to expand voter registration opportunities.”