While Some Support Strengthening 'Motor Voter' Law In Fla., Others Urge Caution

Sep 13, 2013

A state lawmaker is hoping to legislatively pursue an effort to automatically register Florida voters when they get a new driver’s license. While some say it could make for a more efficient voter registration process, some wonder if there could be a negative impact as well.

“Ticket number 76, Station 2. Last call, number 76.”

Renee Bourdeau is about to get her name changed on her new Florida driver’s license at the Leon County Tax Collector’s office.

"Did we get a good picture? Is it worth it," she asked.

"Yes, I did get a picture. And, we need your signature here, and remember to sign your new name," replied the Customer Service rep.

She’s asked several different questions, including whether she’d like to be an organ donor and whether she’d like to register to vote in the county. That second question is required by law and Leon County customer service rep Courtney Woodward says it’s typically asked when a new name, like Bourdeau’s, is entered into their database.

“That kind of comes later on when you get through different questions. Are you currently registered to vote in the state of Florida? Yes. Is everything current? Do you need to change your address and what not," stated Woodward.

But, University of Florida Political Scientist Daniel Smith says there’s no set standard across the state for DMV officials to implement what’s called the “motor voter” law and it varies by location.

“I was talking about this in my class yesterday. And, some people were shocked they could have registered at the DMV. They weren’t aware of it. Others, the DMVs have street level bureaucrats who make that discretion on whether or not they’re going to offer you to register or not,” said Smith.

He says a bill recently filed by Lake Worth Democratic Senator Jeff Clemens aiming to strengthen the law by automatically registering residents could create a consistent standard, but it may turn into a partisan issue, despite what studies show.

“The fact of the matter is when motor voter was originally put into place, Republicans were concerned this was going get all these unwashed masses of Democrats registered and the fact of the matter is it wasn’t. It actually had a bump in a net plus for Republicans registering at DMV offices. So, it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But, I suspect it will, once again, abound to that,” added Smith.

Clemens says he filed the measure mainly to get rid of what he calls an “archaic voter registration system” that seeks to disenfranchise minority and female voters. He adds the bill may also free county supervisors from taking part in voter registration drives, thereby allowing them to focus more on other areas.

“Campaign to register voters is a fantastic thing, but really we shouldn’t have to have that. Supervisors will be able to concentrate on the things they need to worry about: the elections themselves. Now, we will have more people on the voter rolls. So, that will require obviously a little bit more attention. But, it will be a lot less controversy about who’s registered and who’s not,” said Clemens.

Meanwhile, Lori Edwards urges caution. She’s the Polk County elections supervisor and President of the Florida Elections Supervisors Association. Edwards says DMV officials would still need to screen out certain groups of people, including convicted felons, who can get a driver’s license in Florida, but can’t vote.

“That information may not always be apparent to people at the driver’s license bureau. So, we really have to try to be careful to find a way around that. And, to update your address with the elections office is a free and easy process. However, to update your address with the driver’s license bureau, it actually costs money. And, as a result, that could be a deterrent. So, I think the supervisors are always happy to work in cooperation and partnership with DMV, but I don’t see that they would ever take the place of the work that we’re doing,” said Edwards.

Under Clemens’ bill, those who do not want to be registered can also opt out of the automatic voter registration.  It’s the second time Clemens has filed the bill and he hopes this year it’ll get a hearing.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.