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MoFo Helps Ease Calif. Motor-Voter Mail-in Process

Jan. 31, 2018, 9:18 PM

• Agreement unifies driver’s license and voting application for mail-in applicants

• Streamlined procedure to take effect in time for 2018 elections

More than a million Californians a year will soon have an easier time registering to vote when they apply by mail for a driver’s license or state identification, under a settlement negotiated with pro bono assistance from Morrison & Foerster.

The settlement creates a streamlined registration procedure that will be implemented in time for the 2018 elections.

One form will now serve as an application for both purposes, making it simpler for prospective voters to start the registration process, Morrison & Foerster litigation associateJeremiah Levinetold Bloomberg Law.

Beginning the voter registration application process will be automatic unless someone opts out, he said.

Especially significant is that the state must put the new, streamlined voter registration procedure in place by April 30, Levine said.

This will facilitate registration for the 2018 general election and some voters could even get registered in time for the June 5 primary, he said.

The settlement came after a complaint filed in federal court in California by the League of Women Voters of California and a number of other organizations concerned with voting rights.

It corrects noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the federal “motor-voter” law.

Poor Voter Registration Rate

California has had a poor voter registration rate, Levine said. “So it really matters to do what we can to improve that.”

As of 2014, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, the federal census reported that California ranked 46th in the nation in voter registration, according to thecomplaintthe groups filed against California.

California has made significant improvements in NVRA compliance over the last two years, but “as of Feb. 10, 2017, more than 5.5 million Californians who are eligible to vote remain unregistered,” the complaint said.

The federal “motor voter” law took effect in 1995. It mandates that an application to obtain or renew a driver’s license or state identification card must also serve as an application for voter registration.

Under the law, a state can’t seek information on a voter registration application that duplicates information that’s already been provided.

But in California, applicants doing transactions by mail would get separate driver’s license and voter application forms, Levine said.

The problem was that “the DMV form would be prepopulated with their information, so it was very easy to return, and the voter registration form was blank, and asked for 18 pieces of the same information as the motor vehicle form.”

“So the process wasn’t compliant because the voter form asked for information that had already been provided,” Levine said.

It’s About the Burden

“And it’s not a small thing, registering people to vote is largely about the burden of registering to vote” and California’s two-step process for mail-in applicants “just made it harder,” he said.

More than 1 million Californians renew their driver’s licenses by mail each year.

Voter registration information is transmitted from the motor vehicle department to the California secretary of state, which handles elections.

The new procedures for by-mail licenses and renewals are part of a broader set of changes being made according a 2015 state law, the California New Motor Voter Act (AB 1461).

Negotiations with the state over the federal law’s requirements had brought about a streamlined process for Californians who applied for licenses in person and online, but the same wasn’t true for the many who sought to do this by mail, Levine said.

“That’s why it ended up in litigation,” he said.

The League of Women Voters of California; California Common Cause; the ACCE Institute, a community social justice organization; and Unidos US, a group that serves the Hispanic community; sued in federal court in California in May 2017.

The suit against the state came after the parties couldn’t agree on a timeline to ensure that the process would be complete before the 2018 elections, according to thesettlementdocument.

Levine, who had worked on another voting rights case, said this case was a good fit for him and his firm.

Morrison & Foerster was inspired to become involved in voter rights pro bono work in 2014.

Entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte came to the firm’s New York office that year to discuss his long history of civil rights activism,Jennifer K. Brown, senior pro bono counsel, told Bloomberg Law.

“In response to a question at the end of his talk, he identified voting rights as the most important civil rights issue today,” she said.

The firm was asked to assist in the California case by the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy organization Demos, which represented the plaintiff groups.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie A. Steinberg in Washington atjsteinberg@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick atspatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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