New York in Violation of “Motor Voter” Law and the Voting Rights Act

By Project Vote March 8, 2017

Voting Rights Groups Call on State to Fix Voter Registration at DMV, or Face Litigation

NEW YORK, NY – Attorneys for Hispanic Federation, Voto Latino, Chhaya CDC, MinKwon Center for Community Action, and New York resident William Towbin sent a pre-litigation notice letter today, alleging that the state is failing to meet its obligations under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The letter was sent to Todd D. Valentine and Robert A. Brehm, Co-Executive Directors of the New York State Board of Elections (NYSBOE), as well as Theresa L. Egan, Executive Deputy Commissioner of the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Section 5 of the NVRA, commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires the DMV to provide voter registration services whenever an individual applies for, renews, or changes their address on a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. The DMV is then required to transmit voter registration information to the appropriate election official within ten, or in some cases five, days. Further, under the language assistance protections of the VRA, the state must ensure that voters in numerous New York counties are provided voter registration services in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali, in addition to English.

Today’s letter—sent by attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and LatinoJustice PRLDEF— cites clear evidence that the DMV is failing to ensure that a driver’s license or identification card application, renewal, or change of address transaction serves as a voter registration application or change of address. The letter provides New York with official notice that its DMV offices are failing to comply with the NVRA, starting a 90-day timeline for the state to come into compliance or face litigation.

“The failure of the DMV with regards to New York’s voter registration process is troubling.  New Yorkers who either register to vote or update their voter information at a DMV office are routinely told they are not on the rolls when they go to the polls,” said James Hong, Interim Executive Director at MinKwon Center for Community Action. “This amounts to disenfranchisement. Our state must do more to make sure the voices of all its citizens are heard.”

Earlier this year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a report, titled Report on Voter Access In the 2016 Presidential Primary, which found that the names of numerous people who registered or updated their registration information with the DMV were never placed onto the rolls.

William Towbin, an individual on whose behalf today’s letter was sent, experienced this problem firsthand. He submitted a voter registration application through the DMV in October 2015. “When I went to my polling place on Election Day that November, they told me I wasn’t on the list even though I turned in my form at the DMV and told the DMV clerk I wanted to register,” Mr. Towbin stated. “I had to cast a provisional ballot, which I later found out wasn’t counted. It was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to be denied my right to vote when I did everything I was supposed to do to get registered.”

“There’s a clear breakdown in the DMV’s voter registration process,” said Allie Boldt, counsel at Demos. “And as AG Schneiderman concluded, transmittal problems are not limited to an office or geographic region. Rather, problems encountered registering to vote through the DMV have disenfranchised Mr. Towbin and other individuals across the state. The state must take immediate action to ensure that voters are not being disenfranchised as a result of errors by the DMV or election officials.”

The letter also alleges that New York is failing to meet its obligations under the language assistance protections of the VRA. Under Section 203 and 4(e) of the Act, several New York counties must provide voting materials and assistance in certain covered languages as well as English. Across New York State, voters and potential voters are not able to access effective voter registration information and services in their native language, because the DMV’s website only offers voter registration in the covered languages through “Google Translate.”

“Google Translate is simply not an adequate means for New York to comply with its Section 203 obligations,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at AALDEF. “The translations it produces are confusing at best, and are often incomprehensible, making it impossible for non-English speaking New Yorkers to obtain the voter registration opportunities they are entitled to.”

“Offering a poor machine translation is not enough to protect the rights of New Yorkers of South Asian origin to register to vote in their native languages,” said Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director of Chhaya CDC. “New York is compelled to do more not just by the Voting Rights Act, but also because of the large number of limited English proficient South Asian American voters within the state that require this assistance.”

“New Yorkers at large are already facing barriers to vote because of DMV’s failure to comply with the NVRA, and language barriers are compounding the problem for Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali speaking communities. A lack of language access should not prevent any qualified voter from registering and participating in our nation’s democratic process,” said Niyati Shah, election counsel at Project Vote. “New York State must take steps to protect the rights of New Yorkers with limited English.”

“Civic engagement is the cornerstone of our democracy. Our government must be doing everything it can to ensure all citizens have access to voter registration services, as promised by our laws. We are troubled that New York is failing to meet its obligations to voters and potential voters who speak languages other than English. New York must take immediate action to address systematic problems that disenfranchise voters and remove barriers that suppress voter turnout such as inadequate and inaccessible registration procedures,” said José Calderón, President of the Hispanic Federation.

“Combining the problems with getting voter registration applications from the DMV to appropriate elections officials with the ineffective translation of voter registration materials, it’s no wonder New York has such low rates of Latino voter participation,” said José Perez, deputy general counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “All New Yorkers, regardless of language or background, should be able to go to the polls with confidence that if they registered to vote through the DMV, their vote will be counted.”

“New York voters like the ones we help register should be fully empowered,” said María Urbina, vice president of politics & campaigns at Voto Latino. “A robust and responsive democracy is only achievable when voters can meaningfully participate in the electoral process. It is our hope that all actors will come to the table committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote.”

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