How the DMV Undermines Democracy

“She was a fat, resentful woman. The kind who is always behind the counter at the DMV when you need to renew your registration”

–P.J. O’Rourke, A Parliament of Whores

“There are days when we don’t let the line move at all.”

–Patty and Selma, The Simpsons

I generally ignore the protesters with the “Obama-is-a-Radical-Muslim-with-a-crazy-Baptist-preacher-in-Chicago” and “Get government out of Medicare” signs when I walked from the Metro station to my office in Washington D.C. But the day I had to register my car at the Virginia DMV, I saw a method to at least one protester’s madness. He set up a table about 300 yards away and around two building corners from the front door of the DMV.

Like most DMVs around the country, this one set its weekly hours to correspond with the times when most Americans are at work and cannot go to the DMV. As a small concession to serving those whose taxes pay for the DMV to exist in the first place, this office was open on Saturday mornings from 8am to noon. I arrived at 7:30am to avoid a line. Too late: it already snaked back a hundred feet and around one corner of the building. By the time 8am rolled around, it wrapped back several hundred yards until people were standing next to, you guessed it, the protester, who got a receptive audience as he railed at the government.

The DMV is the perfect place to demonstrate the incompetence of many public services, and to instill completely justifiable rage on the part of taxpayers. Almost every single person interacts with it each year, and therefore almost every single person is treated like garbage rather than what they are: The owner and employer of the DMV.

That Saturday morning, the staff was late so it didn’t open at 8am, making the line longer and angrier. Finally the doors opened, and a single staff member began slowly processing people one at a time. There were two other staff by the door though: Uniformed security guards. This is a higher ratio of security to service staff than one sees in banks, jewelers and other places that actually have something you might want to steal. They are needed at the DMV because people lose it and get angry. If those guards were replaced with service staff, the patrons would be no more angry than people buying coffee or a newspaper, but that would be what a customer service agency would do, not the DMV.

I was reminded of this experience yesterday at the California DMV. We had an appointment, but there was only one line for “all customers”. My wife walked to the front and asked the employee if we had to wait in line and he said no and pointed her to an unmarked line. People who had been waiting in line for a long time with appointments were pissed because there was no way to know that they didn’t have to wait because the DMW does not deign to share information with customers.

When we got our paperwork we were instructed to sit down and wait. But there were not enough chairs for everyone to do so. Over a hundred people, including elderly people and people on crutches were crammed into and overflowed the available seats in the squalid office. They all stared at the monitors like desperate Keno players, hoping their number would finally come up. “I’ve been here two hours!”, a man grumbled. “Just two?”, a woman responded.

We finally got to the desk and were charged over $200 to register our car. No one explained what this money buys, as one would do if one wanted a good relationship with the customer rather than having the government “You have no choice so pay it and shut up” attitude. I pulled out our credit card and was told they did not accept credit cards. How many people have to go back home for cash or a debit card each day I am sure they neither know nor care.

I filled out my name and address at least five times. In the heart of Silicon Valley they have no computer stations with fillable forms that could copy this information instantaneously to everywhere it was needed. But again why bother? All that would result is efficiency and better service.

A child next to me sobbed into his mother’s lap. A woman of about 30 said under her breath to her partner “I can’t take this anymore, I can’t. Let’s just go!”.

We then drove around to get our car “verified”. We sat and waited. And waited. There were no staff and no explanation of what to do. Neither was there a sign to say how long the wait would be. After 20 minutes a man came out and waved us and a few other cars forward so that we were packed tightly together. He then walked away without explanation. At this point no one said anything. The people in the cars and their passengers and the people who were sitting on the sidewalk waiting just stayed silent, like whipped dogs in a learned helplessness experiment.

Finally a woman came out and did the 2 minute inspection of our license tag and VIN and said we were allowed to leave. But we couldn’t because the previous staff member had told us to wedge together so no one could leave the line until every single person had gone through the same process. In a fit of human kindness, the woman in front of us got in her car and drove to the side. God bless you, ma’am.

If there are any ambitious Secretaries of State out there who want to be governor, start at the DMV. Start by doing a walkthrough and seeing how the citizenry is treated. Adapt the system to the customer and not the other way around. I really think you could win an election by just saying over and over “I am the one who made your DMV treat you like a human being”.

It is smug and facile to dismiss Americans’ rage at inept and unresponsive government, when one of the most common ways that we interact with our government validates that feeling in every respect. DMVs undermine our faith that the public sector can do anything right or that it even cares if it does, and that undermines a basis for a democratic society.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

50 thoughts on “How the DMV Undermines Democracy”

  1. There are 2 questions that need to be asked:

    (1) How did the DMV get this bad in the first place?

    (2) Why has no one fixed it yet – even though there would clearly be the prospect of political gain for doing so?

    You'd think that progressive politicians would want to focus on stuff like this, because (as noted in the original post) it degrades public perception of government, and makes it harder to get public support for necessary government functions.

  2. The Republicans' key insight is that they are well-served by America's downward spiral.

    In the last dozen years, I've done the DMV in Washington D.C., Maryland and New Jersey, and while New Jersey was a little slow, it wasn't a bad experience. Maryland and DC were both brisk and efficient.

    Virginia and California are places where the provision of public services is heavily influenced by Republicans, and they know that the worse government functions, the more people will elect Republicans. It's a negative feedback loop that the Republicans have learned to apply to the recession and to foreign policy, and it's incredibly dangerous for our country.

  3. It could be the budget, it could be deliberate (who's in charge of the DMV anyway), but one thing it isn't is necessary. When I lived in New York, there was the DMV Express, where transacting business typically took between 5 and 20 minutes; in the state where I live now the wait is sometimes as long as half an hour. But most business can be transacted by mail.

    If it's the budget, you're in a cleft stick: the typical response to an agency that isn't liked and isn't doing its job well is to cut, which just makes it impossible to do a good job even when employees are working as hard as they can.

  4. In Illinois, up until a few years ago, the DMV was terrible because of patronage. It has improved greatly with the closing of a few offices due to corruption; the message was not lost on the remaining offices.

  5. Sadly, public management has failed to take hold as a lucrative and respected profession. Forty years ago, when the major policy schools came into being, we had reason to hope for better. By and large, the results were disappointing. We haven't starved the beast, but we've failed to give government the proper nourishment or held it to proper standards of accountability.The public draws predictable conclusions when government fails to meet basic standards of performance. As state and loal governments face a growing budget gap, this cycle will probably worsen.

  6. You should all move to Minnesota. I never ever wait in line, the offices are open outside bankers hours and the DMV is efficient and competent.

  7. I usually scoot in and out of the DMV here in Pennsylvania (outside of Philadelphia) — I try to get there early and am usually served quickly. I have only been there to renew my DL from time to time. My son will soon be thinking of getting a DL (actually he's been thinking of it for a while, but soon will finally be able to act on those thoughts — look out, world), so I may have some more trying experiences in front of me.

  8. Let's not forget the contribution of that leading purveyor of security theater, the Dept of Homeland Security. In the State of Delaware, the new anti terra approved drivers license requires that even current holders of Delaware drivers licenses, bring in VERIFIED COPIES OF BIRTH CERTIFICATES. You may think you have one, but don't count on it. Needless to say, the lines at the DMV, no matter for what purpose, are now so bad, that one should easily plan an entire day or more to conduct transactions.

    A lot of DMVs had managed to bring down the waiting periods, and despite all the annoying levels of extra verification in getting a license in a new state, things did move well. Bring in the latest wet dream of DHS, dump it on the DMV, (all the while cutting the living crap out of state budgets) and we see what happens. DMVs are not without fault. But we cannot lose sight that their mission of licensing drivers and vehicles in the state has been expanded to provide 50+ different forms of national ID. Want to get on a plane? Want to check into a hotel? Want to buy something with a credit card at various establishments? All of them want to see the drivers license.

  9. I second Minnesota's efficiency. I was in and out with a license renewal in 10 minutes.

  10. I've lived in and had drivers licences from 9 states so I have had a wide sample of DMV experiences. California was by far the worst, followed closely by massachusettes. However, like all organizations and businesses, service varies greatly by location. Some in-and-outs always serve hot burgers and fries, others are less consistent. Same is true for post offices and the DMV. Some are great, some are terrible.

  11. Out here in Victoria, British Columbia, the "DMV", or ICBC as we call it, is pretty much line-free in most places. I got my new drivers' licence in 30 minutes, renewed it in 5, paid a speeding ticket over the phone, make address changes online, and the people who work there are unfailingly cheerful and efficient. It can be done, the issue, as many commentators mentioned, is the deliberate sabotaging of government administration by people who have a vested interest in not having government work

  12. This is hands down the worst posting I've seen the the RBC. It is filled with absurd claims, anecdotal evidence, generalizations, false equivalencies, and exaggerations. I completely agree that government services can often be poorly implemented, and sometimes more so because of inherent structural problems that inevitably lead to more bureaucracy. But it is just as true that government provides services that the private sector simply will never be able to, that bureaucracy also exists in the private sector, and that government often times does a wonderful job providing services (even, as others have pointed out, and I can also personally attest – at DMVs).

    Yet what I find most offensive is the suggestion that poor performance by government is an existential indictment of government. No, it is an indictment of *poor performance*. Just as poor performance by the private sector is not an indictment of the private sector but an indictment of *poor performance*. The only time the two should be existentially compared is when one might be able to provide a better service than the other. Yet remember, most services the government provides are those that must be provided *to all citizens equally*. And because, unlike the private sector, you seldom have the opportunity to vote with your feet by taking your business elsewhere, the remedy requires an extra level of active citizenship in the form of writing letters, filling out evaluation paperwork, voting in elections, etc. Of course this may or may not work, but it is the only reasonable option. On the plus side, there is an actual democratic mechanism to government, unlike the private sector. There are countless area of the market in which there is just no good mechanism for holding the business accountable, save from starting your own.

  13. You should all move to Minnesota. I never ever wait in line, the offices are open outside bankers hours and the DMV is efficient and competent.

    What he said.

    I second Minnesota’s efficiency. I was in and out with a license renewal in 10 minutes.

    Him, too.

    I do my annual registration online, and they mail me my tabs. Paying a parking ticket in person is a three minute process, with never more than about two people in line. I haven't had to renew my license in a while (next year), so I can't speak to that.

    Public services can be delivered well. All you need is people who care. I'm sure Tom Emmer will be happy to fix this problem if he gets elected.

  14. Here in Pennsylvania, the DMV is great. Every four years we need to get a new license and it never takes more than 15 minutes. They always ask if you are happy with the photo and will readily take another if you don't like it. Car registration and license renewals can be done on-line and you just need to show up to get a photo taken. They also have Saturday hours.

  15. DMV works pretty well here in NY. You can do almost everything online. You can even renew your drivers license via mail as long as you get a vision test from your doctor and send documentation.

    The couple times that I've had to go to the physical location have gone pretty smoothly

  16. Will second @Dan, Pennsylvania (where I grew up) is pretty good for a DMV. They're spread a little thin in some parts of the state, but it's a massive state with sparse population in some areas, so I guess that's unsurprising.

    What I can't believe though is that somebody upthread called the DC DMV 'efficient'. One (poorly-located) inspection station for a city of 600,000! Lines at the three offices that frequently exceed 2-3 hours within an hour of opening on Saturdays! In what way is that efficient? I guess I could agree that they are efficient within the constraints placed upon them by DC's regulations and funding, but still, having to go to the DMV here is incredibly unpleasant.

  17. Here in South Carolina, the DMV is also a breeze. Forms & info are readily available online, there's am 800 help number that is actually staffed and helpful, and once one actually comes to a DMV office one must first pass a greeter who verifies that the customer has everything needed for her transaction, logs the customer into a databse, and prints a ticket.

    The automated system handles scheduling, routing, and announcing who's next and where to go.

    Works like a charm.

  18. Contra Tyler, here in "Taxachusetts" I have spent a grand total of 30 minutes at the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the past 12 years. I don't even know what hours they keep nowadays, since I made my last 2-3 registration renewals and even my last license renewal on-line. My heart bleeds for decent folk who live in states dominated by anti-government lunatics.

    Keith Humphreys only hints at the nature of the enterprising protestor who set up shop at the tail end of the DMV line. Was he there to protest the inefficiency of the Virginia DMV? Or was he railing against the commie fascist Muslim usurper in the White House who is violating the rights of the sovereign states of this here Confeder… er, Union?


  19. I find Massachusetts pretty good. First, you hardly ever have to go there; you can do all the routine transactions on line. If you have to get a picture taken (only once every ten years) or get a new plate (every 24 years/car–I just had to replace a plate I got in 1986) you have to go in. Like the system described by Rick in SC, in the offices there is a greeter and an electronic queuing system and it runs pretty efficiently. We have license plate stickers and one time mine fell off. I just called the RMV, asked what I should do, and they asked for my registration and sent me a new sticker by mail. I really can't complain.

  20. I frankly dislike Mitch Daniels (governor of Indiana) a lot. BUT…the BMV here works reasonably well. Almost everything can be done online, on a reasonably convenient website (better than my bank's website), and the fees are relatively modest [except for the annnual motor vehicle excise tax, which is a dedicated-to-road-work tax (although that's sort of a sham, since the lege reduced other highway funding when they imposed the excise tax)]. Illinois also does (or did; I haven't had to deal with them for 5 years) a reasonably good job.

    Like so much with service organizations generally (and government services in particular), it depends on where you are.

  21. In Maryland, you can renew your driver's license by mail if you have a private optometrist give you a vision test and fill out the form.

  22. I have to use the T word, outrage alert. We can spend our time waiting around at an understaffed, undercapitalized DMV office, or we can pay the [here it comes, stay strong, readers] taxes and fees required to serve the irreducible number of people who need to do business there. (Or I guess we can let liberty spread her wings, get the government's boot off the neck of people who want do the American thing (drive a car) and abolish car registration and operator licenses entirely.) The first option is much more expensive, but the cost is hidden because it doesn't show up in any economic transactions measured in money, therefore it's not real; the second eats away at the foundations of the nation and makes us slaves and serfs. Easy choice! Keith, wasting a day at the DMV to accomplish something that could have taken twenty minutes is laudable worship at the temple of freedom and less government; a privilege, not a burden!

  23. Interesting post–my experiences with the Virginia DMV (in Richmond and Lynchburg–I've lived here since 2001) have been uniformly positive and helpful.

    The most maddening government agency I've ever worked with is building permits in cities.

  24. "My heart bleeds for decent folk who live in states dominated by anti-government lunatics."

    There is no more evidence to support this claim than for the claim that a bad experience at the DMV is proof positive that government can never do a good job. Unless I've missed some data somewhere, in each case the claim is ideologically driven rather than fact based. I also haven't seen any evidence to support the idea that problems with the California DMV are budget related. And while I suspect that it's *harder* for the government to do a good job than the private sector (because it has no competition, in part), that it sometimes does succeed suggests that the primary problem is management related. Indeed, I've had an excellent experience at a local California DMV location.

  25. Here in Arizona we have small, privately-operated satellite DMV offices that charge moderate fees on top of the official DMV fees. Their waits vary depending on the line, naturally, but their popularity has made the waits at the DMV near me very short, indeed (most renewals are done on-line, anyway). In fact, there is a satellite right across the street from my around-the-corner DMV — I used it only once, it was no faster than the state's.

  26. While I don't know about Virginia, I'm baffled at the commenters who say that the California DMV is just like Virginia's. Granted, in person it's pretty bad (as of a few years ago), but there are very few things one has to do in person: everything's done online or by mail. That "almost every single person interacts with [the DMV] each year" is not even nearly true for Californians. I took a test when I moved here ten years ago, had to stand in line once to get a new license after someone stole my wallet, and otherwise have never been to a DMV office.

  27. In California it makes the government look even worse that AAA members (known down there as the "Auto Club") can go to their local office and do the VIN verification in a few minutes with friendly, helpful personnel and no lines (or at least that was the case back in 1997 when I started working near LA).

  28. That's horrible. I live in IN, and everytime I hear people whining about their BMV I'm confused by it.

    I go to the DMV, go to registration (MAYBE there's 2 in front of me), wait a few minutes. Deal with the person I need to, and then go pay. There might have been some situations that made your situation worse than it otherwise might have been (call-ins at your DMV? Unusually heavy day?).

  29. This thread has covered most of the points. I have one more to add. In my experience, rural offices and offices in posh suburbs tend to work a lot better than urban offices. My wife deals with the NYS bureaucracy, and often gets things done by driving out to Riverhead from the city. It saves time.

  30. In New Hampshire I go to the DMV to pay because it's more convenient and faster than mailing a check at the post office. We also pay no sales or income taxes. You're all fools for letting your state governments tax you and mistreat you.

  31. We can always count on someone like Michael to show up and blame the victims. If only they'd paid more in taxes, then they'd have good government. Did you not read the post? What part of that story is suggestive of a lack of resources, rather than a lack of consideration for the citizens of the state?

    In my relatively low-tax state, our DMV is much better than what's described. Of course, we don't have as many liberals, so we're not smart enough to tolerate the crap that people in California tolerate.

  32. Thomas, do you live in the State of Fantasia?

    It's pretty obvious from the above posts that blue and red states both have crappy and good DMVs. Just across the Potomac, bright-blue Maryland is good; reddish Virginia is crappy. Or your state (or other reds) have some good DMVs. And I'm sure that there are some crappy blue ones.

  33. Far be it from me to defend the California DMV, but I had to renew my license the other day and was in and out of the Hawthorne (So Cal) DMV in 5 minutes. And when my daughter's reservation was canceled (due to furlough Fridays), the same DMV office called us to reschedule the appointment and were very accommodating of our schedule. If we're going to judge the efficiency of the DMV on one anecdote, then I have to assume ours is fabulous.

  34. @Eli,

    I think Keith was arguing not that the DMV reveals an inherent truth about all public services, but that it's unreasonable to fault people for a belief about government services when a large portion of their interactions with such services (albeit rare) verify this belief. Of course we are also consumers of the Federal highway system and public infrastructure, but these don't provoke evaluations of the efficiency of government services by most people. Telling people what they take for granted doesn't address what they don't have

  35. RMV in Massachusetts has superior if mechanical in-person service, but why use it? Online is what I use for all transactions. They much prefer it and so do I.

  36. I agree with the other MA residents, except for Tyler. I do almost all of it online, and on the one or two occasions I've gone in person the service has been quick and efficient.

  37. New York used to be bad in the 70's. The staff was slow, and not happy to be there, or willing to help. Someone changed something in the 1980's. Waiting times changed from hours, to 15 minutes, and the staff was friendly and actually helpful. The rumor was that the cost stayed the same, but it was run differently, but I'm not sure.

  38. My only experiences with a DMV have been three times in the last nine years, in Monmouth County in New Jersey, to get and renew a nondriver's license (which I hadn't needed prior to 9/11). My first time, I'd heard such horror stories about DMVs I was prepared for a nightmare. Instead, it was one of the most pleasant encounters with bureaucracy I've ever had–incredibly efficient, with genuinely friendly, helpful staff. I was able to go during a weekday; my longest wait was less than 10 minutes (seated).

  39. At least up until the DMV cutbacks here in CA during the last year or so, I've had some remarkably fast service at the DMV here in Santa Monica for several years. A couple years ago, I even went in to apply for a motorcycle permit, they actually called my number before I even had time to fill out the form. They had to wait for me!

  40. Thank you everyone for the large number of comments. I am genuinely glad that some of you have had good DMV experiences, would it were always so.

    The thread I think proves that my experiences are not unique — I learn from RBCers that the Automobile Association and some private companies sell as a benefit not having to deal with the DMV. Some of you pay for a DMV with your taxes, and then pay a private concern again to not have to deal with them…that speaks volumes. With respect to Andrew, everyone in California who has a car does indeed interact with the DMV every year. You can use their website to pay for annual car registration, which means you are not using the staff and offices you bought with your taxes and are largely doing their work for them…but do you get a discount for these sacrifices? No. You in fact pay an extra "convenience fee" because it is worth money to not have to deal with the staff who you pay for in the buildings you pay for. That is "not interacting with the DMV" only in the same sense than someone who goes to the trouble to cross a street in heavy traffic to avoid a beggar might say "I don't interact with beggars, they don't affect me at all". Paying extra to avoid a bureaucracy that is supposed to help you is common in much of the world (e.g., The Middle East) and it is clearly also happens here (not always thank goodness) here when it comes to DMVs.

  41. Keith,

    As best I recall, in MA I do not have to pay a convenience fee to do my DMV business online. Or to do much of my Revenue Dept business online either.

    And, lest I be misunderstood, I do not claim that MA state government is a model of efficiency. We have problems of corruption, incompetence, and ridiculous patronage galore. But some things do get done.

  42. Bernard

    That's great to hear. California has a convenience fee, and the California State Automobile Association sells as a benefit of membership letting you avoid the DMV here by going to them instead.


  43. Hell, I live in Ireland, not teh image of the most advanced Wesgtern society, but we can do all that sh*t on the internet.

    Its just as amazing as Florida's electromechanical voting machines.

  44. Keith,

    You missed the punchline on Patty's quote from The Simpsons. It's actually: Some days we don’t let the line move at all. We call those, "weekdays."

  45. Thanks Kevin, forgot that nice closing.

    At least we can all agree (I hope) that Patty and Selma are funny, even though some of us laugh at their DMV jokes as satire of an experience that millions of us have had, and others because Patty and Selman offer absurdist humor built on the conceit — against all our experience — that a DMV could give less than superb customer service.

  46. During my years of driving the people of the State of Washington have experienced truly dreadful service, at private agencies franchised by the state, and really good service at the state offices eventually built. I'm guessing, though, that people in Washington have pretty much the same ideas, in the same proportions, about DMVs as the rest of Americans.

    It's a sort of 'Suburban Legend' stalking the land, a node of our deepest and darkest concern- 'losing our wheels'- and at the same time, a reaffirmation that we can confront this monster and live.

    Fortunately, most of us survive and move on to bigger mountains to climb than the DMV.

Comments are closed.