Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 "to establish procedures that will increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office." This legislation is commonly referred to as the "Motor Voter" law in reference to Section 5 of the act, which includes a requirement that most states' driver's license agencies allow eligible citizens to register to vote when conducting a driver's license or state identification card transaction via a single, multipurpose form.
When done well, registration at motor vehicle agencies can reduce costs to states by minimizing labor-intensive paper registration and better serving a highly mobile electorate. When citizens experience a life event that could affect their voter registration -- a move or a name change, for instance -- they naturally think to update their driver's licenses or state IDs but rarely update their voter registrations, or even realize they need to do so.
During the past two decades, however, the Motor Voter process has gone without a significant performance review. The availability of voter registration at public assistance agencies, which is also required by the law, has been the subject of investigations and lawsuits, but research examining the voter registration process at motor vehicle agencies has been scarce.
To assess how well state motor vehicle agencies do in registering voters, two main data points are needed:
- The number of all licensing/identification transactions occurring at motor vehicle offices.
- The total number of voter registration applications that originate in motor vehicle offices.
Where available, this information could reveal the proportion of licensing transactions that also include voter registration transactions in every state.
A team of researchers commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts attempted to collect and examine these numbers. But deep and varied problems with the data (including how and if it is collected), as well as inconsistent definitions and categories of registration transactions across states, rendered a nationwide comparative analysis impossible. This report analyzes these data, where available, and examines the serious challenges to collecting them. 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.
This study also provides recommendations for reviewing and evaluating how motor vehicle agencies provide voter registration services, particularly improving coordination with state election agencies and increasing the emphasis on collection and reporting of transaction data. Immediate attention to these issues is required to standardize and increase data collection efforts within and among the states, so that implementation of the Motor Voter provisions can be assessed and, where needed, upgraded and improved.