By Jon Lender
The U.S. Department of Justice has informed state officials that it is investigating Connecticut's "motor voter" program -- under which citizens can sign up to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- and has found "widespread noncompliance" with federal laws.
"This is to notify you that I have authorized a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut and appropriate state officials to enforce compliance with Section 5 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993," which applies to local 'motor voter' programs in the states," Vanita Gupta, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, wrote April 15 to Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen.
Officials in states around the country run local motor voter programs according to federal legal guidelines -- which is why the justice department takes an interest in what happens locally.
Gupta described the state's alleged noncompliance as follows: "Throughout the State, it appears that applications for a Connecticut driver's license or a non-driver identification card generally do not serve as applications for voter registration with respect to elections for Federal office, and that change of address forms do not serve as notification of a change of address for voter registration purposes if the applicant is moving between two towns."
She went on to say in her letter: "And while it appears that motor vehicle offices may provide voter registration forms to some applicants who know to request them, that practice is no substitute for Section 5 compliance.
"Some motor vehicle offices, moreover, will not accept and transmit completed forms to the appropriate election authorities, or do not consistently do so within the required timeframe. These failures violate the [National Voter Registration Act] and deprive numerous Connecticut citizens of important voter registration opportunities required under federal law."
Gupta told Jepsen in her letter that the justice department hopes "to resolve this matter amicably and avoid protracted litigation. Accordingly, we will delay filing the [lawsuit] for a short period to permit us to try to settle this matter via a consent decree."
Responsibilities for overseeing Connecticut's program are shared by the DMV and the office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. A DMV spokesman said, "We are working to ensure the state is in compliance with the federal motor-voter law."
A spokesman for Merrill, Patrick Gallahue, said that this is no time for "finger-pointing" as to who's responsible for any problems. "Everybody's going to work together to rectify" the situation, he said.
Merrill, the top state official in charge of elections, recently has been pushing to expand Connecticut's existing motor voter program beyond its present voluntary form. Earlier this year, she introduced legislation to automatically register people to vote when they conducted business with the DMV, unless they specifically declined. The bill, whose prospects of passage are uncertain, has been described by Merrill as a means of increasing voter participation.
However, the state DMV, which has been experiencing nightmarish computer problems since late last summer, said recently that it isn't ready to do what the new bill would require.
"We love the concept, it's an interesting concept, but now is not the right time to do it," DMV spokesman William Seymour said last month. "We need to identify the level of effort and capabilities, operationally and financially, of both sides to implement the suggestions or proposal. When we have that information, we can give it to the legislature and the legislature can make a decision."
Merrill's proposal would have the motor-voter system use already available government lists to fill out a voter registration form, which would then be electronically transmitted to local registrars of voters.
"Right now, DMV is redoing its entire registration system ... it is the perfect time to redesign with this program in mind," Merrill told legislators at a hearing last month.
On Wednesday, reacting to Gupta's letter, Merrill issued a statement saying: "I have been striving for more than five years to make voting more convenient for the people of Connecticut. That's why we introduced automatic voter registration this year. I look forward to working with ... state and federal partners to bring this exciting voting modernization initiative to the state. This letter reminds us of the urgency to get this done."
Some have criticized the DMV's administration of the program. According to figures collected by registrars and reported by the federal government, between 2012 and 2014 there were more than 558,000 registrations in Connecticut -- but only 26,500 were done through the DMV.
The new system proposed by Merrill wouldn't be implemented for two years after the legislature and governor approved it.
A spokeswoman for Jepsen's office said discussions are underway with federal officials to try to resolve the problem.
"We are engaged in the early stages of discussions with the Department of Justice and our client agencies regarding this letter and compliance with federal voter registration laws," Jepsen spokesman Jaclyn Falkowski said. "It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time."
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