Samuel F. Wright

Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
Director, Service Members Law Center
(800) 809-9448, ext. 730
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Motor Voter Law and Veterans

By Scott J. Rafferty, Esq. and

Captain Samuel F. Wright, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

Q:  What is the “Motor Voter” law?  How is that law pertinent to voting by military personnel and veterans?

A:  “Motor voter” is the colloquial appellation for the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), Public Law Number 103-31.  The NVRA is codified in title 42, United States Code, sections 1973gg through 1973gg-10.  This federal law overrules state laws that required (prior to the 1995 effective date of the NVRA) that applicants for voter registration appear in person before election officials.  It is now possible, in every state, to register to vote by mail.

The NVRA applies to 47 states and the District of Columbia.  Minnesota and New Hampshire are exempt because they have permitted voters to register to vote at the polls and then vote the same day since prior to the enactment of the NVRA.  North Dakota has no voter registration.

The NVRA also provides that designated government offices must offer individuals doing business with those offices the opportunity to register to vote.  In the 15 years since the NVRA went into effect in 1995, millions of Americans have registered to vote while applying for or renewing driver’s licenses—this accounts for the “motor voter” appellation.  State Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) offer voter registration forms to persons doing business with the DMV.  The individual can complete the form and turn it in to the DMV, which is then responsible for turning over the completed form to the proper voter registration office.  But this convenience is not limited to the DMV—it applies when dealing with other benefit programs.

Executive Order 12926, section 2, requires military recruiters to distribute voter registration forms upon request and accept completed forms and transmit them to local voter registration offices.  Under the Executive Order, recruiters perform this function not only for potential recruits who visit recruiters to obtain information about possibly joining a service, but also to members of the public who may find it convenient to register to vote in this way.  Most recruiting stations are located in public places, like shopping centers and strip malls.  The apparent rationale for going beyond the requirements of the NVRA is to generate traffic for recruiting offices, which are sometimes lonely places.  Some of the folks who come in to recruiting offices to register to vote might join the military or might refer others, like adult sons and daughters. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has resisted participating in NVRA activities, contending that such activities are inconsistent with the DVA mission, will take away scarce resources from providing health care to veterans, and will entangle DVA staff in political contests.  We believe that the DVA cost estimates are grossly excessive and that predictions of disruptions are far-fetched. 

We want DVA offices to offer veterans the opportunity to register to vote when dealing with those veterans with respect to claims, medical care, and other official business.  As we explained in Law Review 1063 (the immediately preceding article), this activity is especially needed for veterans who reside long-term on DVA campuses.  If the DVA will not assist these persons in registering to vote, and if the DVA prevents third parties (including state and local election officials) from entering DVA campuses to perform this function, those elderly or disabled long-term residents will likely be disenfranchised.  The best time to offer the veteran the opportunity to register to vote, or to reregister or to change the mailing address for voter registration, is upon his or her admission to the DVA facility.

Q:  If the DVA offers voter registration services to veterans doing other business with the DVA, will the DVA thereby be obligated to offer that same service to non-veterans?  Will the non-veteran have the right to insist upon entering a DVA campus solely for the purpose of registering to vote?

A:  No.  The NVRA requires government offices to offer the opportunity to register to vote to members of the public who are otherwise doing business with the government agency, like the driver’s license applicant registering to vote while renewing her driver’s license.  The fact that the President has directed DOD to allow members of the public to register to vote through military recruiters, whether or not they are visiting the recruiting office for some other purpose, in no way means that the NVRA binds the DVA or other government agencies to adopt similar policies.

Most recruiting stations are in public places, like shopping centers and strip malls.  Most DVA facilities are on limited-access campuses.  Members of the public are unlikely to seek voter registration assistance on DVA campuses, so requiring the DVA to provide this service to non-veterans would serve no useful purpose.  We believe that the DVA has raised this issue as a “red herring” in its unreasonable opposition to participating in voter registration activities.

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