The official deadline to register to vote in New York State for the upcoming presidential election is Friday (see note at bottom of page). While those in search of a quick fix might go online, the only site where voters can submit a registration form electronically is the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which has a history of crashing at the deadline.
Alexander Kveton, 29, knows first-hand. A grad student by day, bartender by night, Kveton wanted to vote in the presidential primary last spring, but he forgot to register until the night of the March deadline while he was busy at the Quarter Bar slinging drinks.
When it was quiet, Kveton huddled with his phone and tried to register through the DMV’s website.
“Every time an error just kept popping up or nothing was really going through,” said Kveton.
He wasn’t alone. Hundreds of other New Yorkers got caught in internet limbo at a crucial moment because the state website couldn’t handle the volume of traffic.
The problem this spring was documented in emails obtained by WNYC under the state Freedom of Information Law. They show a system that actually adds another step to the registration process — and more opportunities for breakdown.
The online motor-voter system was launched by the Cuomo administration in 2012. Good government groups called it a major step forward in the state’s archaic voter registration system. Earlier this month, a statement from the governor said the system has processed more than 600,000 registration forms since its launch.
But the DMV doesn’t know how many of those people actually became registered voters, because the DMV doesn’t register voters. It just takes in the information and sends the forms to each local office.
“We are the passive recipients of the data,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections. He added, “We’re relying on the representations from the Department of Motor Vehicles that the system will function.”
In March, four days before the deadline, Ann Scott, the DMV’s director of Agency Program Services, sent an email to Board of Elections staff statewide, signaling the start of the problem.
She said the site was already struggling from high traffic that weekend tied to a Facebook promotion that linked to the DMV site. That bottleneck delayed the DMV from sending forms that were collected for several days to local election offices for processing.
Then on Friday, in the final hours for voters to register, the DMV registration system went down again. People were told to download a registration form, fill it out, save it, attach it to an email to the DMV and include a statement of affirmation in the body of the message.
That’s what Kveton did eventually, “This is something simple and it was just coming across as difficult.”
The same went for 259 other New York City voters in the space of just a few hours when the site was down, the emails show.
(There’s no number for the people who just gave up and didn’t register at all.)
These breakdowns delayed the delivery of forms and saddled the city, and all local election offices, with piles of registration forms just ahead of the deadline when they’re already working at capacity.
In fact, motor voter systems have proved to be among the weakest links in voter registration around the country, according to a recent report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.
That report points to Delaware as a model for fully integrating its DMV and voter registration system, a feature also cited by election experts.
“They transfer all the information electronically,” said Jonathan Brater from the Brennan Center for Justice. “They are also one of a couple states that do it in real time. So, basically as soon as that information gets to the DMV it is able to be transferred to election officials.”
Brater said Delaware also offers electronic registration at other agencies, so a voter doesn’t necessarily need a driver’s license or non-driver ID to register to vote online, as is the case in New York on the DMV website.
“In March, the only way to fill out an online application on our website was through a MyDMV account,” said DMV spokesman Joe Morrissey via email. “It was this system that experienced temporary problems under high volumes. Since then, DMV has deployed a new voter registration application that does not require a MyDMV account.”
Asked if the DMV had plans to more fully integrate its system with local Boards of Election, Morrissey said, “Not at this time.”
NOTE: The New York City Board of Elections is conducting a final voter registration drive on Saturday, October 15, 2016 at locations across the city from 1pm until 9pm. Visit the Board of Elections of the City of New York for a complete list of locations.
With reporting from WNYC DataNews Jenny Ye and Alex Gerald