N.H. Dems propose automatic voter registration through state DMV

Monitor staff
Published: 2/20/2019 6:05:21 PM

It was a decision that would define New Hampshire elections for decades. In 1993, the passage of the National Voter Registration Act forced the Granite State to choose: Either allow residents to register to vote at Division of Motor Vehicle locations, or let them sign up on Election Day itself.

Most states went for the former option, enacting “motor voter laws.” New Hampshire opted for the latter, establishing same-day registrations and bucking the trend. At the time, Secretary of State Bill Gardner pushed the Legislature away from the motor voter option, warning about the loss of control of the process by town clerks. 

This year, Democrats are hoping to put both processes in play. 

A bill by Democratic state senator Melanie Levesque would create an opt-out voter registration system for anyone who transacts with the motor vehicle department in New Hampshire. 

Senate Bill 7 would establish a “secure data transfer program” that would allow information collected by the DMV to be passed on to to the Secretary of State’s office. 

Under the bill, anyone walking in to get a driver’s license, non-driver’s ID card or a change to their records would be automatically applied to be registered to vote – provided the person is at least 18 and is domiciled in the state. The registration would put the person onto the voting rolls for their hometown, allowing them to walk into polling places on Election Day with their name already on the list.

The registration, which would include the collection of the resident’s name, age, hometown and citizenship status, would not be mandatory, and visitors to the DMV would have the option to decline. But at a hearing Wednesday, Levesque and other advocates argued that it would nonetheless boost voter registrations in the state and encourage more people to vote. 

To pay for the program, the legislation would rely on funds provided by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)to the Secretary of State’s office. 

Voting rights groups hailed the proposed bill as a means to streamline the registration process, arguing it would reduce the load for town election officials on Election Day, who would potentially face fewer same-day registrations. 

And they pointed to other states who have implemented motor voter laws and have seen registration numbers increase – such as Vermont. 

But opponents – who included the Senate Election Law committee’s two Republican senators – said that New Hampshire’s high registration numbers make the system unnecessary, and warned that it could be costly.

“From the testimony we heard today, it is clear that the only thing this legislation would do is create longer lines at the DMV...” said Sen. James Gray, Republican of Rochester.

DMV Director Elizabeth Bielecki said the new duties would lead to longer wait times for those at the DMV, which already has seen staffing cuts bring down certain procedures to a crawl. An analysis from the department estimated that the bill would require 18 new staff members for the agency at a cost of between $1 and $3 million a year. 

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, meanwhile, advised using general funds to pay for the program instead of the federal HAVA money, which he said could be drawn down if the DMV registration program proved costly. 

But Levesque said the earlier estimates by the DMV were based on a flawed interpretation of an earlier version of the bill, which she said has been amended so that the DMV would not carry out registrations itself. The real cost, she said, would amount to somewhere below $500,000, the senator said.

And she stood behind the goal of the bill, which she said would bring New Hampshire in line with 15 states that have enacted DMV registrations. 

“The goal is to streamline the process,” she said. “It’s going to ... put us into the twenty-first century.”




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