In 2016, five jurisdictions — including West Virginia — enacted automatic voter registration laws.
Vermont and Washington, D.C., passed laws in April and December, respectively, both after West Virginia passed its law. Alaska voters approved automatic motor voter in a referendum in the November general election. Georgia adopted automatic motor voter administratively, through a joint agreement with the state’s secretary of state, attorney general, and division of motor vehicles.
In those places, automatic voter registration through DMV offices was implemented in a matter of months, with Georgia coming online first in September 2016, and Washington being the laggard, with a June 2018 implementation. That’s according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, here in West Virginia, automatic voter registration still has yet to become a reality, more than 39 months after it became law. The Secretary of State’s Office last week provided legislators with a timeline indicating it will take another 17 to 21 months before it can launch.
The bill passed by legislators in 2016 had a July 2017 deadline for implementation. That has been pushed back twice, with the latest legislation (SB 491) setting a July 2021 deadline. (The bill originally had a July 2020 deadline, which would have allowed automatic registration to begin prior to next year’s general election, but the Senate Judiciary Committee replaced it with the 2021 deadline.)
That means it will take nearly five years for West Virginia to implement legislation that Georgia was able to implement in months and that Vermont, Alaska and D.C. all implemented in less than two years.
Folks, this is not rocket science, or reinventing the wheel. All states have had motor voter for years, allowing individuals to register to vote at their DMV offices. Automatic motor voter, as the name implies, simply makes that process automatic, unless a person opts out.
To date, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have implemented AVR, and while there were glitches in some localities, no elections were thrown into chaos.
For much of West Virginia’s travail with AVR, much of the blame was laid at the feet of the DMV, where upgrading a 30-year-old mainframe computer to handle the new influx of data was proving unworkable.
In the 2019 regular session, then-acting DMV Commissioner Linda Ellis told legislators that her agency wouldn’t be ready for AVR in 2020, and that the current system transmitting opt-in motor voter registration data from DMV offices to the Secretary of State was having glitches where some files were not being sent.
However, last week at interim meetings, current acting DMV Commissioner Adam Holley dropped a bombshell: “The DMV is in full compliance with collection of data for motor voter. We’re collecting all the data and submitting it to the Secretary of State’s Office.”
Turns out, rather than try to jury-rig the DMV’s antiquated computer to be able to compile and transmit voter registration data, the IT folks hit on the bright idea of piggybacking on the national Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a national system that allows voter registration offices use to compare and transmit voter data.
So with the impediment of DMV out of the way, we should be able to have AVR in place for the 2020 elections, right?
As Lee Corso says, not so fast.
As Donald Kersey, general counsel for Secretary of State Mac Warner, told the interim Joint Committee on Government and Finance last week, the office first wants to do a $1.5 million upgrade to the Statewide Voter Registration System that will allow registration data to be electronically transmitted to county clerks’ offices. Otherwise, they would have to manually input the data, the prospect of which had made them none too happy.
According to report provided to legislators from the Secretary of State’s Office, installation of that upgrade is going to be a slog.
Even though the Legislature approved funding for the venture in June, the system vendor, PCC Technology, won’t get around to starting on the project until November, and then, according to the report, will need seven months for programming and development, and a roughly equal amount of time for testing and training.
Without getting into the question of why it took three years before it occurred to someone that implementing AVR would require additional funding from the Legislature, the timeline conveniently pushes implementation beyond the critical 2020 elections.
Asked why it will take so much longer to upgrade West Virginia’s SVRS, compared to timelines required in other states, Warner spokesman Mike Queen responded: “Thinking about the 2020 election specifically, county clerks will be very busy preparing for training poll workers, programming ballots and voting machines, testing equipment, publishing notice and other required public information, etc., for over 1,700 precincts around the state. With those mandatory requirements (and many more unmentioned), it could be the case that the vendor expects the county clerks’ spare time to test their portion of the system between the May primary and November general to be in short supply.”
Queen continued, “Even if the upgraded voter registration system version is ready after just a couple months of testing, it would be highly irresponsible to deploy a new voter registration system just before a presidential General Election.”
One thing is clear: Warner is not a fan of AVR. In the 2016 campaign, he called it a George Soros-backed plot to pack voter rolls.
In the report to legislators, Warner’s office stated that the “vast majority of county clerks are foundationally opposed to AVR,” and also raised the fundamental issue of whether voter registration is an “automatic right that should be imposed by government” or one that should be affirmatively asserted by the individual.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February, Kersey also told senators that a majority of county clerks want the AVR law repealed, not postponed, and later commented, “It sounds like we need to repeal this bill. It sounds like we need to take it back and test everything.”
Ironically, the office has both dismissed AVR as having minimal impact on elections, merely changing wording at DMV offices from, “Do you want to register to vote?” to “Do you want to opt out?” while also warning legislators that “AVR will certainly increase the volume of new and updated registrations for counties to process.”
Warner’s office has also continually emphasized glitches in rollout of AVR in other states — and granted, there were some issues with rollouts in the first 12 jurisdictions venturing out into implementation of AVR.
In California, for instance, glitches resulted in some 1,500 ineligible individuals being registered to vote. The registrations were cancelled prior to Election Day.
(For perspective, that would be the equivalent of having 69 ineligible individuals registered in West Virginia.)
However, as the Los Angeles Times reported in April, “Overshadowed by the revelations about registration snafus was the fact that 1 million new voters were successfully registered to vote in the program’s bumpy first year.”
The bottom line is, there is ample evidence that automatic voter registration works.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice released earlier this year found that AVR has led to a spike in voter registration in every state where it has been implemented, ranging from 9.4 percent in Washington, D.C., to a whopping 93.7 percent in Georgia. (The average increase was 37.9 percent.)
The study concluded that if AVR were enacted nationwide, it would add up to 50 million new eligible voters to the rolls.
In Oregon, the first state to enact AVR, Gov. Kate Brown earlier this year declared it to be a “phenomenal success,” adding 272,000 individuals to the voter rolls in its first year, and Brown credited AVR for raising off-year election turnout from 43 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in 2018.
(West Virginia’s voter turnout in 2018 was 42.5 percent, dropping it to 49th in the nation.)
A study by the Center for American Progress also found that AVR changed the demographics of voter rolls in Oregon, with AVR registrants tending to be younger (40 percent under age 30), and more likely to live in to low-to-middle income and racially diverse areas.
The other bottom line is, it should not take five years for legislation of any kind to go from enactment to implementation.
This is not to pile on the DMV and the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s not uncommon for bureaucrats in state government to dawdle their way toward implementing new laws.
It’s been two years since the state legalized medical marijuana, but implementation is still more than a year away. Likewise, 400-plus Highways employees have filed a mass grievance over that division’s failure to devise new pay scales, as mandated by a 2017 law.
It also took so long to get sports betting up and running in West Virginia after passage that the state squandered the head start it had over states like Pennsylvania.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column misidentified the state's vendor for its voter registration system.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt for the Legislature to create a new interim committee whose sole responsibility would be to get updates from agency heads on the status of implementation of new legislation. It might light a fire under some of these bureaucrats.