California Can’t Dodge Suit Over Motor Voter Rules

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming California makes it harder for those renewing driver’s licenses by mail to register to vote, in violation of federal law.

The League of Women Voters and three other groups sued California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and Secretary of State’s Office in May, claiming the state burdens would-be voters by making them fill out the same information on separate forms to sign up to vote.

California ranks “a dismal 46th in the nation” in its rate of registered voters, the groups say, and more than 5.5 million eligible California voters remained unregistered as of February 2017, according to data cited in the lawsuit.

In a 17-page ruling issued Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler found the National Voting Rights Act of 1993 does not require one form be used for renewing licenses and voter registration, but it does forbid making applicants fill out duplicate information.

“The statute’s plain language does not require one form,” Beeler wrote. “But on the statute’s face, as illuminated by the legislative history, the contemplated process is a non-duplicative, integrated process.”

The state argues it is “already voluntarily going beyond” what is required under federal law by working to put in place a new system that will automatically sign up driver’s license renewal applicants to vote unless they opt out. The new system, approved in a motor voter law passed in 2015, is expected to be in place by early next year before the June 2018 primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

But the plaintiffs have refused to drop their lawsuit until the new process is in place or the state guarantees it will be rolled out soon.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jeremiah Levine said the state has dragged its feet with a series of delays over the last three years since the groups first notified state agencies they were violating federal voting laws.

“The state is saying it will comply by April 2018, but it still refuses to sign an enforceable agreement that it will do so,” Levine said in a phone interview. “The lawsuit is critical for making sure that the state complies with Motor Voter Act in time for voters to register for the 2018 primaries.”

Beeler denied the state’s motions to dismiss the suit for lack of standing, finding the organizations adequately alleged they’ve had to divert resources to register people to vote because of the state’s failure to comply with federal law.

A DMV representative said the agency is working with the state’s Department of Technology to roll out the new Motor Voter program “sooner than originally expected.”

“The DMV is confident we can have the program in effect in April, in advance of next year’s primary election,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said in an email.

Meanwhile, Beeler granted the state’s motion to dismiss for lack of associational standing with leave to amend, finding the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege their members suffered harm due to the state’s actions.

The plaintiffs must file an amended complaint by Sept. 21.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include California Common Cause, National Council of La Raza and the ACCE Institute, or Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

The California Secretary of State’s Office not immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment Monday morning.

Levine is with Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.


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