For more than 20 years, the “Motor Voter” law—the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993—has ensured that Americans can register to vote, and keep their voter registrations current, at their DMVs. These days, however, Americans increasingly interact with DMVs over the Internet, and several states have neglected to incorporate the federal requirements of “Motor Voter” into their online systems.
Project Vote has been defending and litigating around the NVRA for more than a decade, and it seems self-evident to us that a person renewing their driver’s license online—or updating their address online—should have the same protections under the NVRA as someone doing it in person at their local DMV. And now a U.S. District Court in Texas has agreed: a recent ruling in a lawsuit held that the NVRA’s requirements apply with full force and effect regardless of whether the underlying DMV transaction occurs in person or online.
In this case, Stringer v. Pablos, the court found that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)* violated the requirements of Section 5 of the NVRA by denying thousands of Texans who used the state’s online Texas Driver License Renewal and Change of Address system the chance to register to vote or update their registrations.
Section 5 of the NVRA requires that a driver’s license application or renewal serve—simultaneously, and without requesting duplicative information—as a voter registration application. Further, Section 5 of the NVRA requires a change of address to serve, simultaneously, as a notification of change of address for voter registration purposes.
In Texas, however, individuals who engage in driver’s license renewals and changes of address online, and indicate a desire to register to vote, are currently not registered to vote and do not have their addresses updated. As stated in the court order in Stringer v. Pablos:
“Rather, the receipt page that appears when users complete their transaction provides a link that users can follow to a destination page where they can download a physical voter registration form, which they must then print, complete, and submit either in person or by mail.”
This process is not simultaneous, and it requires individuals to provide duplicative information; both, the court ruled, are violations of Section 5 of the NVRA.
The court held that the “straightforward reading of the statutory text makes the simultaneous application requirement clear. That requirement applies to ‘any renewal application’ as well as change of address forms—including the online submissions at issue in this case.” This is not to say that states are required to establish online voter registration, “. . . merely that voter registration be offered equally with, and integrated into, driver’s license applications, renewal applications, and change of address submissions.”
Which is to say, if a state provides NVRA-covered DMV transactions online, then it must also provide NVRA required voter registration services online.
This ruling also addressed several more important aspects of NVRA compliance.
The court is the first to address the question of whether address updates required by the NVRA for DMV clients include moves to a new county. The court indicated that, to comply with the NVRA, the DMV and election officials are required to process address updates for voter registration whether the address update is submitted online or not, and whether the client moves across county lines or not.
In so ruling, the court rejected Texas’ arguments that state laws and policies prevent such compliance with the NVRA. First, the court held that state laws do not actually require a signature for an address update to a voter’s registration because their address can be updated from online DMV transactions without a signature during moves within a county.
The court also rejected the state’s argument that a voter must sign the voter registration application in order for the state to process renewal applications or change of address updates, because the state already allows DMV clients to verify their identity at login and to execute an affirmation of citizenship online—both transactions that, under state law, also require a signature. Furthermore, in a sort of catch-22, the state does not provide voters an opportunity to sign for voter registration purposes; thus, the court held that the state cannot now fail to comply with the NVRA when they “themselves, in violation of the NVRA, have made it impossible for [voters] to do so.”
Next, the court held that, because a signature is captured during the initial driver’s license transaction and used for comparison at the polls, it “is unclear why an additional signature provided with a change of address form is necessary to enable comparison between the signature provided at the time of initial registration and the signature provided at the polls.”
Ultimately, the court found that the state required that inter-county changes of address updates required a signature only because Texas wanted to “avoid the expense and logistical burden of transmitting the voter’s signature to the county of the voter’s updated registration.” This was unacceptable to the court. States “cannot escape compliance with the NVRA because of a lack of state appropriations to fund compliance.”
The opinion in Stringer makes it clear that states cannot play fast and loose with the requirements of the Section 5 of the NVRA simply because they choose to provide the underlying DMV transactions online, or because they find the requirements of the NVRA burdensome or expensive.
Project Vote urges state officials to take this opportunity to review their practices and procedures at their DMVs to ensure full compliance with NVRA. Similarly, DMV constituents can also take the initiative to see whether their state is in compliance with the NVRA. And, specifically with respect to DMV change of address transactions, both state officials and DMV constituents can see if their state is up to the grade with Project Vote’s report Changes of Address and the National Voter Registration Act—How State DMVs Are Failing Voters & Violating Federal Law. As always, Project Vote remains available to help state officials achieve full and meaningful compliance with the NVRA.
*In Texas, DPS issues driver’s licenses, not the Texas DMV. The term ‘DMV’ is used in this blog post because of the reader’s familiarity with that terminology