GOP Legislators: Merrill, DMV Circumvented General Assembly With New ‘Motor Voter’ System [Courant]

May 19, 2016

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has come under fire from GOP legislators for her push to establish a “streamlined motor voter system.”

By Jon Lender
Hartford Courant
May 18, 2016

Lawmakers Claim Merrill, DMV Circumvented General Assembly With New ‘Motor Voter’ System

HARTFORD — Republican legislative leaders claimed Wednesday that Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and the Department of Motor Vehicles Wednesday bypassed the General Assembly when they agreed this week to establish a “streamlined motor voter system” to automatically register citizens to vote when they go to DMV for a driver’s license or state-issued identification card.

Senate GOP Leader Len Fasano of North Haven and Michael McLachlan of Danbury, the highest-ranking Republican senator on a legislative committee that oversees state elections, issued a statement blasting a “memorandum of agreement” signed Monday by DMV and Merrill’s office.

Both lawmakers said the agreement goes “around the legislature” because it accomplishes what Merrill tried but failed to accomplish earlier this year during the regular session of the General Assembly.

Merrill had proposed a bill to establish the “automatic” motor voter registration system, but it didn’t win passage in the recently-concluded legislative session.

“This proposal had a fair chance to make it through the legislative process this year. But it failed. That does not make it now okay for the Secretary of the State to force the project forward without legislative approval,” McLachlan said in a joint statement with Fasano. “[W]hy is she usurping the voice of the public by going around the legislature elected to represent them? Since when does a Secretary of State have executive power authority over the legislature? This is a clear overreach of power to implement a program that is likely to be extremely costly and unreliable.”

Fasano added: “There should be an inquiry as to why officials waited until after the legislative session ended to move forward with this new program. The proposal didn’t make it through the legislature because lawmakers don’t believe DMV can handle it, which is exactly what the department said in its testimony. To try to go around the legislature now shows the arrogance of the administration to circumvent the will of the people and those who represent the public.”

A Merrill spokesman, Patrick Gallahue, said Wednesday afternoon that the Secretary of the State’s office would be responding shortly to the Republicans’ comments.

On Tuesday, Merrill and DMV Commissioner Michael Bzdyra announced that under their new agreement, they would jointly develop by August 2018 a new system under which the DMV customer would be registered to vote unless he or she specifically declines by choosing to opt out. Under the current motor voter program, the DMV customer is registered to vote only if he or she actively chooses that option.

Connecticut is the first state to adopt expanded motor voter program via an agreement rather than a legislative vote, Merrill’s office and DMV said in Tuesday’s announcement.

Federal law requires states to operate “motor voter” programs under which when someone applies to the DMV for a driver’s license or renewal, that application must also include an opportunity to register to vote. Also, requests to the DMV for a change of address must also be forwarded to voting officials in applicants’ hometowns for updating of voter-registration information.

The agreement to administratively implement the “automatic” motor voter program comes at a time when the state is facing a potential lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged violations in the state’s existing motor voter program. DMV, Merrill’s office and the state attorney general have begun discussions with justice department in hopes of averting the lawsuit that the feds threatened on April 15.

It is unclear what effect the new DMV-Merrill plan for improving the program will have on the justice department’s decision as to whether to go through with the threatened lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the DMV responded to Merrill’s proposed legislative bill by saying its recent computer problems made this a bad time to try to expand the motor voter program. But the new agreement overcomes those misgivings.

Only citizens eligible to vote will be able to register through the program, officials said. Undocumented immigrants who can obtain “drive-only” licenses won’t be able to register as voters.