April 15, 2013

California Democrats push voting laws that could broaden their reach

Fresh off their 2012 wins at the polls, California Democrats are looking to broaden their reach by advancing a new batch of bills aimed at expanding voter access and increasing turnout.

Fresh off their 2012 wins at the polls, California Democrats are looking to broaden their reach by advancing a new batch of bills aimed at expanding voter access and increasing turnout.

Achieving that result would likely benefit Democrats, who historically fare worse in the lower-turnout nonpresidential elections, as they defend supermajorities in the state Legislature and competitive congressional seats won last year in the 2014 election.

"We have work to do," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told delegates at the state party's convention over the weekend in Sacramento. "We just got started."

Some of the efforts are meant to build on the success Democrats had with using the state's new online registration system, which launched about two months ahead of the November election.

The new voters who signed up online were more Democratic and turned out at higher levels than the voting population as a whole, according to an analysis by the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis.

Democrats highlighted those numbers at their weekend convention, making the system the subject of workshops, general session speeches and at least one party.

"When we passed online voter registration, the Republicans start running and we start grabbing online registrations and that's how we won," Democratic state Sen. and secretary of state hopeful Leland Yee, who wrote the bill to speed up implementation of online voter registration, told a cheering crowd at a "Pro-Tech the Vote" reception Friday.

During a Sunday address, Secretary of State Debra Bowen touted California's work to register more voters as a way to "show the rest of the country how to run a true democracy."

She also stressed the policy implications of increasing voter numbers, saying higher turnout will "eliminate questions about health care and education."

"If we got everyone eligible, and eligible and voting, those policies would be law in California," Bowen said. "So let's go for it."

Many of the more than two-dozen voter access and turnout-related bills introduced by Democrats in the current session appeal to key voting blocs, including young voters.

Approaches include encouraging county election officials to put polling places on college campuses and allowing Californians to pre-register to vote at age 15. One proposed constitutional amendment would let 17-year-olds vote in the primary, providing that they will turn 18 by the time the general election is held.

Another bill would allow officials to count absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, as opposed to the current rule requiring the ballots to arrive by that time. Other bills call for efforts to educate inmates on their post-jail voting rights and to speed up implementation of same-day registration in the state.

"As the Democratic Party, we obviously want more people voting, so the more avenues they have to get engaged, the better," said R.J. Victoria, a 34-year-old delegate from Irvine. "It's about inclusiveness."

Some observers see opportunities for both sides with the changes. Mindy Romero, director of the UC Davis project, said it's too early to tell whether the online registration system will end up benefiting Democrats in the long term. She noted that about 1 million Californians used the system last year but online registrants still make up just 4 percent of the current electorate.

"I'm not sure how much we can read into one election cycle where the stars were in perfect alignment for the Democrats," she said.

California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander sees online registration as a "really mixed bag" for party politics on both sides, because it makes it easier for Californians, especially younger, tech-savvy voters who move frequently, to update and possibly change their registration status. She said she's glad to see the Legislature act in ways that could expand and encourage voting access for all.

"I do think that (online voter registration) is an excellent avenue for California to tap into the millions of people who are unregistered to vote and eligible," she said.

Still, the efforts have been met with resistance from Republicans, who say Democrats are playing politics with election rules.

"It's not about giving people access, it's about jacking up their numbers," GOP Assemblyman Dan Logue, a former vice chairman of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, said. "Gaming the system is the best thing to call it."

Logue, of Marysville, said his party "went to sleep" last year when it came to taking advantage of using the online voter registration system to reach new voters. He said it's crucial that the GOP now tailor its strategy to make the best use of the new rules, an effort he thinks is doable under the leadership of newly elected California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte.

"This is the way the rules are written, and we have to adapt in order to make sure the people who register to vote really strongly consider voting Republican," he said.

Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544. Follow her on Twitter @capitolalert.

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