Report

Motor Vehicle Departments: Bedrock of American Democracy

/
February 2, 2021

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) play a crucial role in our elections. This report seeks to raise the level of recognition of the agency’s role – among policymakers, state agency officials, advocates, and the public – to improve their partnerships and the functioning of our democracy.

A line graph demonstrating that new voter registrations decreased when COVID-19 closures hit DMVs.

Since the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA or “motor voter”), state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) have evolved into a bedrock of the modern system of election administration—for voter registration in particular. Since then, their role in our elections has expanded to include multiple types of voter registration, identity verification, and maintenance of accurate voter registration lists. While the current scope of DMV involvement in election administration is relatively unappreciated, raising the level of recognition of the agency’s role – among policymakers, state agency officials, advocates, and the public – is important to improve the functioning of our democracy. This report, Motor Vehicle Departments: Bedrock of American Democracy, serves as a primer and guide for these audiences and other interested parties on the history, parameters and robustness of their current role, and provides a catalogue of everything DMV officials do in election administration.

Unfortunately, the evolution of the DMVs’ role occurred without initial buy-in from DMV administrators or an expansion of resources for DMVs to fulfill their growing role. Rather, in most states, state reliance on DMVs expanded without a commensurate expansion of available funding. Sustained and regular interaction, discussion, and consideration with respect to the scope of DMVs’ role in election administration – among their many other core duties – is happening only now, over a quarter century after passage of the NVRA.

The level of election administration reliance on DMVs is now so great that the public, policymakers, and DMV and election officials should reconceptualize DMVs as integral partners in implementing American democracy. Rather than a non-election entity, DMVs – on an everyday basis – are providing irreplaceable support in delivering aspects of our election systems.