Proposal To Link N.H. Voter Registration With Driver's License Renewal Spurs Debate

Feb 20, 2019

Officials with the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles and the statewide organization representing town clerks are among those raising concerns about a new proposal that would allow people to start the voter registration process at the DMV.

The proposal, which got its first public hearing in the Senate Election Law Committee on Wednesday, is designed to increase voter registration by sending information collected from the DMV to the state's voter database.

Sen. Melanie Levesque, the bill’s prime sponsor, said the DMV already collects most of the information required to register to vote whenever someone registers for or updates a driver’s license.

“The goal is to streamline the process,” Levesque told the Senate Election Law Committee, which she also chairs. “It’s to save time for voters going to the city clerk to register, for city clerks re-entering data before and after an election, to get more people into the voting process.”

Levesque made a point of emphasizing that her proposal wouldn't require DMV staff to walk people through the voter registration process — it would just set up a system for sharing information that’s already collected as part of the existing vehicle licensing process. But DMV Director Elizabeth Bielecki said it would likely still put strain on her agency.

“There would be questions that would be coming to us, at the counter, the people at the greeter desk, ‘What is this process? Do I have to do it? How does it affect me? And so forth,” Bielecki said. “So there would still be a customer interaction that really would slow some transactions down a little bit.”

Neither Bielecki nor Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan took an official position for or against the bill, but both officials raised a series of questions about the cost and logistics required to implement the program.

The bill was also met with skepticism from Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie, speaking for the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association, who told the committee this new process would not necessarily result in greater voter participation.

“This could create an illusion of greater voter participation by artificially inflating the number of registered voters, because people would be registering to vote who don’t actually have any intention of voting,” Dargie said, adding this could require local municipalities to spend more money on voting equipment.

Dargie also raised concerns that the change would diminish one-on-one interactions between local election officers and prospective voters. Levesque, in her testimony, said her goal isn’t to eliminate the role those officials play: Prospective voters would still have the opportunity to register at their local clerk’s office or polling place, and local checklist supervisors would still have the final say in vetting the registration information shared by the DMV.

The clerks’ association’s opposition to the bill is not unanimous, however. Dargie’s testimony was immediately followed by that of Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain, who supported the bill. Manchester City Clerk Matt Normand, who presides over the largest municipal voter list in the state, also supports the change.

In her testimony on Wednesday, McClain noted that the state already has a system that allows the Bureau of Vital Records to share information with the state’s election database – notifying local checklist supervisors when a voter has died so they have an opportunity to review the information and remove that person from the voter list.

“I want us to be able to bring people onto our voter rolls with the same ease that we now can bump them off,” McClain said.

Representatives from the Brennan Center for Justice and Common Cause, two national organizations who have advocated for similar measures in other states across the country, came to Concord to testify in favor of the bill. New Hampshire’s chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters also voiced their support at Wednesday’s hearing.

New Hampshire is one of six states exempt from the so-called “motor voter law” — formally known as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 — which “requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at State motor vehicle agencies.”  The Granite State got out of that federal mandate by allowing people to register at the polls on Election Day.