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No easy answers to DMV’s yes-or-no questions on NC voter registration

DMV’s website requires applicants for driver’s license renewals to answer this voter’s registration question.
DMV’s website requires applicants for driver’s license renewals to answer this voter’s registration question. NC DMV

The state Division of Motor Vehicles website, where drivers are quizzed about registering to vote, has become the latest venue for voter confusion in a perplexing election year.

Early voting for the March 15 primary began Thursday, with voters asked for the first time to present state-approved photo IDs. A lawsuit over redistricting is still in play, and the General Assembly last month scheduled an unusual separate congressional primary – with many voters and some candidates shuffled into new districts – for June.

Bill Alford wasn’t thinking about any of that when he went to the DMV website last week. He simply wanted to renew his driver’s license.

Along with a query about being an organ donor, he was confronted with an awkward, double-barreled question on the DMV web page:

“If you are not registered to vote at the address where you now live, would you like to start a voter registration application now?”

Alford is a registered voter. He figured this question did not apply to him. He ignored it and clicked the CONTINUE button instead.

But DMV wouldn’t let him go. The web page reloaded with a red-ink admonition appended to the voter registration question: “*An answer is required.”

So Alford clicked “No.” The screen went dark. An ominous message appeared, along with another yes-or-no question:

“Voter Registration Declined. You have decided not to register to vote. Are you sure?”

He wondered: Does “Yes” mean you want to register, or does it mean you’re sure you don’t want to register?

“I think it was badly worded,” said Alford, 81, of Raleigh.

No longer sure of anything, he went back and changed his answer to the first question.

Alford says he wanted to make sure he would be allowed to vote and would receive his new driver’s license. His “Yes” answer led him to a State Board of Elections web page, where he meekly followed further instructions.

Voters stumped by website

“I felt like I better not say ‘No’ after they came back at me again,” Alford said. “So I went through the process of re-registering again online.”

Gary Sims, the Wake County elections director, has heard from Alford and other folks who were stumped by DMV’s voter registration messages.

“It was mostly people saying, ‘I’m already registered to vote. Do I still need to do this?’” Sims said.

DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell said the agency is just trying to meet its obligation, under the federal Motor Voter Act, to help its customers become registered voters.

“The ‘are you sure’ question, that might be a problem for some people to understand,” Howell said. “But that’s what we have to do in order to comply with the law.”

Josh Lawson, attorney for the state Board of Elections, expressed sympathy for DMV – and for the confused voters.

“It’s not that you are declining to register when you answer ‘No’,” Lawson said. “I get it. I really do.”

But the tortured wording of DMV’s questions is lifted right out of the Motor Voter Act. When the law was written in 1993, it included language to be used when DMV and other government workers meet in person with potential voters. That might not be the clearest language to use online, Lawson said.

Voters should not interpret the DMV questions as any suggestion that they are not registered.

“DMV does not know and is not the authoritative source on who is or is not registered to vote,” Lawson said.

Alford said he appreciates DMV’s effort to help drivers register to vote.

“It was poorly designed,” Alford said. “But the intentions were good.”

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier

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