The Controversy Over The 'Motor Voter' Law

Jul 7, 2017
Originally published on July 7, 2017 7:44 am
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A White House commission looking into voter fraud is under fire. Many states have now refused to comply with its request to turn over detailed voter information. Some voting rights groups are also questioning the panel's motives, saying the administration's real goal is to make it tougher for some Americans to register to vote. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Lost in the uproar last week over the commission's request for voter data was another letter sent the very same day. It came from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, and it asked states to provide details on how they're complying with something known as the motor voter law, especially a requirement that they keep their voter lists accurate and up to date.

BRENDA WRIGHT: It's very concerning.

FESSLER: Brenda Wright is with Demos, a liberal advocacy group. She notes that the main purpose of the motor voter law is to make it easier to register but also harder to remove legitimate voters from the rolls.

WRIGHT: The problems that DOJ should be focusing on are that too few eligible people have access to the vote and are voting. DOJ going after states to force them to do more purging is exactly the opposite of what the department should be doing.

FESSLER: And she worries what it means that the letters were sent out at the same time that the White House commission was asking states to turn over their voter rolls. In an interview last week with NPR, the panel's vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said he wants to compare those rolls with federal databases to help identify if any non-citizens or an estimated 2 million dead people are registered.

KRIS KOBACH: We can also look at voter history and see how many of those 2 million actually, you know, fraudulently - somehow someone cast a vote in their name after the date of death.

FESSLER: But Wright and many election experts say such matching efforts are flawed and often produce many false positives. They note that Kobach is one of the few officials who agree with President Trump's allegations that voter fraud is widespread and that he thinks the motor voter law makes the problem worse by allowing voter rolls to become too bloated. Christian Adams, a former DOJ attorney who now runs a conservative legal foundation, agrees.

CHRISTIAN ADAMS: When you've got a system that allows people to mark, no, I am not a citizen and still get registered to vote, that system is broken.

FESSLER: He's referring to cases where an individual applying for a driver's license can simultaneously sign up to vote, one reason it's called motor voter. Sometimes, non-citizens register, often by accident. President Trump has called messy voter rolls, quote, "a really bad situation." He cited a Pew report that found millions of inaccurate registrations as one reason he wanted a voter commission.

DAVID BECKER: I know that Pew report better than anyone because I wrote it.

FESSLER: David Becker now runs the Center for Election Innovation and Research. He said states could do more to get rid of inaccurate registrations.

BECKER: People who have moved out of a state or people who have even passed away - and states are having a hard time keeping up with that information. I think also, very importantly, we know from the extensive research on voter fraud that those people aren't voting.

FESSLER: Something Trump has implied many of them are. Becker wonders if the timing of the two letters indicates coordination between the Justice Department and the voting commission on refocusing the motor voter law. A DOJ spokesman says the department sent the letters because it hasn't reviewed how states are maintaining their voter lists for many years. For his part, Kobach says the commission will follow the facts where they lead. And he has no idea what, if anything, it will recommend. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.