Connecticut Becomes Fifth State to Make Automatic Voter Registration Change

By: Cristina DeBiase

In recent years, states have passed laws making it harder to vote through restrictive provisions, such as requiring photo ID, limiting early voting, eliminating same-day registration, or all of the above. Since the 2010 midterm elections alone, nearly half of the states have placed additional restrictions upon voting. Looking forward to November 8, 14 states have new laws that will curtail voting rights for the first time in a presidential election.

In the face of these harsh voting restrictions, some states have started to consider proposals that would actually make voting easier by automatically registering to vote citizens with state-issued driver’s licenses. Oregon became the first state to pass such a law in March 2015, and California joined Oregon later that September, modeling its bill on Oregon’s law. So far this year, West Virginia and Vermont have been the only other states besides Connecticut to approve automatic voter registration, despite efforts in other states to follow suit. In particular, bills in Illinois and New Jersey cleared their respective state legislatures in impressive bipartisan fashion; however, both Governor Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey vetoed these measures over the summer.

This February, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill submitted a proposal to automatically register eligible citizens who request or renew a driver’s license through the DMV or an American Automobile Association (AAA) office that serves as a DMV branch. Merrill submitted this language to the state legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee and requested that the bill be raised, but the legislature did not move forward with the bill. A couple months later in April, the U.S. Department of Justice notified Connecticut that its “motor voter” program was not compliant with Section 5 of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to allow people to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license. The Department of Justice’s main concern was that Connecticut DMVs were largely failing to offer voters a chance to register when they applied for driver’s licenses or updated their addresses.

In order to stave off litigation from the Department of Justice, Secretary Merrill and the Connecticut DMV reached a “memorandum of agreement” in May, which pledged cooperation in the implementation of a “streamlined motor voter system” based on Merrill’s proposal that will take effect in August 2018. A few months later, Connecticut officially settled with the Department of Justice in a memorandum of understanding negotiated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which included a requirement that the state contact currently eligible voters who are not registered to vote at an address associated with a driver’s license or non-driver identification card. Following this August settlement, the state was “off to a fast start,” registering nearly 700 voters on the first two days of the new “motor voter” system—and the DMV was not even open for one of those days.

However, despite this early success, not everyone is convinced that this new system will work as currently planned. Though Connecticut is the fifth state to institute automatic voter registration, it is the only state to do so through administrative, rather than legislative, means. Some in Connecticut do not oppose the program itself, but are opposed to not having the legislature’s backing or oversight behind the law. Most of the law’s opponents in the state legislature are generally in favor of such legislation, but emphasize that the policy must be articulated by the legislature, and not at “the whims of appointed agency heads.” With the legislature’s help, these opponents argue, the system can be implemented the right way. Part of the reason for Connecticut’s non-compliance earlier this year was due to the DMV struggling to get its new computer system up and running, and opponents to the current proposal suggest focusing more on getting the DMV up to speed before beginning to implement such a massive change.

In addition to those concerns, there is also the overarching theme of potential voter fraud that may result from automatic registration. As mentioned in regards to an Indiana voter identification statute in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, an interest in deterring voter fraud is valid, especially when the problem is “in part the product of its own maladministration.” What we have in Connecticut is an already overwhelmed DMV that is now tasked with further modernizing its computer system to include online voter registration for every eligible citizen applying for or renewing a license—a task it appears the state is not ready for yet. If this proposal is in fact premature, the state voter rolls may become inflated with a large number of people who are either deceased or no longer live in Connecticut, due to a lack of orderly administration and accurate record keeping on the part of the Secretary of State and the DMV.

The expected benefits and potential drawbacks to Connecticut’s law reflect an ongoing debate in voting reform today: the expansion of access to voting versus the protection of voting integrity. That debate leaves us with one big question here, which does not seem to have a definitive answer: Should we favor increased political participation, helping to increase voter turnout in the short-run, or should we err on the side of caution, preventing voter fraud of this kind in the future?

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