Thanks to Wendy Underhill and Katy Owens Hubler for their excellent explanation in the latest National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) newsletter of an important problem: the need in many States to complete implementation of "motor voter law."  Let me recap the steps, and refer you to the NCSL article for the whole story.

Now, my addition to their article, is that the PCEA-suggested solution is almost a reality in some States, because it is the inverse of online voter registration with a driver's license.


Here is where the situation starts:

  1. You have a driver's license in your State, and you are registered to vote in that State.
  2. You change your address to some new address in-State.
  3. You go to the DMV to change your address and obtain a new driver's license.
  4. While there, the DMV is obligated (by the Federal law known as NVRA) to enable you to also change address with your voter registration.

That's the scenario.  Now, the problem is that the last step is handled in different ways in different States, in some cases barely at all (for example, DMV person gives you a blank voter registration paper form). The new solution approach was defined by the PCEA, which recommended that:

States should seamlessly integrate voter data acquired through Departments of Motor Vehicles with their statewide voter registration lists

and that's a great idea. One way of doing this is a new step 4 (from above):

4a. As DMV's I.T. systems process your change of address, they also automate the change of address with your voter registration.

How does that happen? By the DMV system sending to the State voter registration system the data about you, your old address, your new address, and your driver's license number.

Wait, What? Take a Look at Online Voter Registration

I am hearing from some readers already: "Its easy to say "DMV sends your relevant driver's license data to voter registration system" but that is a major project to put that into place, isn't it?"

Well actually, no its not, at least not in many of the States that have already implemented paperless Online Voter Registration (OVR) for citizens with a driver's license.  To see why, let's take a look at how OVR works, when you're already registered to vote, you have a driver's license, and you have changed address.

  1. You go to your State's OVR web site (Portal), identify yourself as an "already-registered voter;" provide your driver's license number; and finally, your new residence address.
  2. Portal relays your online request to a behind the scenes voter registration (VR) system.
  3. VR system sends a request to the the DMV system, with your driver's license number (DLN) and relevant personal information, requesting DMV to confirm a "match" between the DLN, your name, your address, and whatever else the DMV system may require (by local regulation).
  4. DMV system replies with a "match"
  5. VR system queues your change-of-address request for your local election officials (LEO) to review.
  6. VR system returns to Portal a "success" message
  7. Portal tells you that your voter registration change-of-address application has been filed, paperless, and your should expect to hear from LEO.

That's how it works today, in some similar form, as we've seen it from inside the IT offices in our work in the states of Virginia and California.

Let's Check the PCEA Recommendation Checklist

With both of those recaps in mind, let's look at what the PCEA's recommendation needs for implementation, from the excellent summary in the NCSL article I began with above; there are 3 items:

  1. "shared data structure" - Check. In a paperless OVR State, the VR system and the DMV system already have a way of exchanging information about you. And in some States, that utilizes a "standard common data format," which makes it easier for other States to adopt.
  2. "the right programming" - Check. In a paperless OVR State, there is already an application programming interface (API) and software on both sides to use it to send a notification of your change-of-address request.
  3. "Intergovernmental collaboration and legislation to allow data to be shared within a state" - Check …maybe. Enabling legislation for OVR may already be in place, but it may or may not be enough for the last step, below. And the collaboration that happened to set up OVR may or may not be easy to repeat for that last step.

The Last Step (or Two)

OK. So with many of those ingredients in place, what is the last step to, as the PCEA reports says: "… allow a registration application completed at a DMV to be digitally transmitted to the appropriate registration official." First, let's refine that a bit. We're referring to an application for change of address for an existing registered voter, automatically created when they change their address at the DMV. The last step is the DMV system performing the reverse of the exchange that already happens in OVR. In other words,

  • The DMV system sends to the VR system your name, old address, new address, and the license number.

The exchange uses exactly the same data format and communication method as OVR. The VR system acts pretty much the same as in the OVR case where is asked the DMV system to confirm a match of pretty much the same information.

So how to put this in place? It is essentially a re-do of the previous process that put paperless OVR into place. So, the gating function really is the collaboration, not the technology. And even better, for a State that is just starting an OVR initiative, it is a great time to put in place both data exchanges, in the same project. In that case, its also the right time to put in place the a final step: a similar exchange of data from the DMV when one is not already registered to vote, and is getting a new driver's license, or changing address, or renewing their existing license.

Code Causes Change - A Worked Example

Especially for those States that are just starting with OVR, or those starting toward implementing the PCEA recommendation about Motor-Voter compliance …a public worked example may help those responsible for I.T. specifically understand the modest technical efforts required to set up the DMV-OVR data exchange.

That's why we have a grant proposal in progress for funding to extend our Voter Services Portal and OVR system, in order to add example components of the entire back-end process, including a worked example of the standard data formats and APIs, with wrappers around the existing legacy systems, so that those existing DMV and VR systems do not require direct modification.

Since we know "Code Causes Change" we believe this worked example of code will illustrate to IT folks exactly how to make the change required to implement the PCEA recommendation highlighted in this month's NCSL newsletter.