Capitol Alert

California is making it easier than ever to vote

Texas lawmakers in 2011 approved a law that counted handgun licenses, but not student ID cards, as acceptable forms of identification to vote.

The Wisconsin Legislature, after Republicans took control in 2010, approved a similarly strict ID requirement. North Carolina lawmakers went further, passing ID rules as well as reducing early voting hours and eliminating same-day registration.

California will never show up in the stacks of legal filings challenging those laws. In California, no law requires voters to show ID. They soon will be registered to vote automatically. Their vote will be counted even if it shows up three days after the election.

While many other states have tightened voter access, for more than a decade the Democratic controlled California Legislature has moved in the opposite direction:

▪ Online voter registration. Residents have been able to register online for the past four years. Nearly 200,000 people signed up online on the last day to register to vote in the June 7 primary.

▪ Vote-by-mail ballots. Unlike some states, California doesn’t require a medical reason or other excuse to be a permanent vote-by-mail voter. In June, almost 59 percent of the vote came in through the mailbox.

▪ Three-day leeway. Mail ballots postmarked on Election Day will still be counted as long as they arrive at election offices within three days.

Other major voter-access laws should be in place in time for the 2018 election. California will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. Those applying for a driver’s license or filing a change of address with the Department of Motor Vehicles will automatically be registered, unless they opt out. Perhaps most significantly, the state will allow voter registration on Election Day.

“The truth of the matter is it’s easier to vote in California today than at any time in the last 150 years,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant.

The debate over voting rules has a significant partisan dimension.

Democrats have supported efforts to make it easier for people to register and vote, while Republicans have generally supported proposals for voter ID and other measures as a way to prevent fraud. In California, just one Republican lawmaker voted for automatic registration. None supported pre-registration or same-day registration bills.

Madrid said both parties have political motives: Democrats want to add non-white and young voters to the rolls, which they think will help their candidates, while Republicans think those changes would hurt their chances.

“If increasing voter turnout helped Republicans, do you really think Democratic politicians would be pushing this legislation? The same goes for Republicans,” said Madrid, who says home-ownership rates, income levels and other socioeconomic factors play a much bigger role in influencing an area’s voting participation.

California is among one-third of states with no voter ID requirement on the books. State election officials advise first-time voters to bring identification to the polls in case their records are incomplete.

“When two-thirds of states do one thing and one-third of states do another, those are two significant camps,” said Wendy Underhill, who tracks states’ voting rules for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Two federal courts recently ruled that Wisconsin’s ID requirement risked disenfranchising voters who had a hard time getting the required forms of ID. Other courts have ruled against the laws in Texas and North Carolina. In the latter case, the court wrote that North Carolina’s rules targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Supporters’ justification for the laws hinges on the “vanishingly rare phenomenon” of voter fraud, said Adam Gitlin, counsel of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

“There’s been this politicization of voting in some respects, which is unfortunate because we all want secure elections,” Gitlin said.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved more proposals meant to improve the California voting experience.

A closely watched measure is SB 450, which will allow some counties, including Sacramento, to consolidate polling places into vote centers in 2018, with all counties covered by the law two years later. Supporters say the change, which followed lengthy hearings and visits to states with the centers, will make it easier for people to vote early in person while relieving counties of staffing neighborhood polling places that get little foot traffic.

“It would be a seismic shift in how people vote,” Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said. “The main goal is to improve the process for voters, to make it easier for them.”

Yet some voting experts have questioned whether the law could discourage some people from voting. The California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis recently conducted focus groups of Latino and African American voters and found that most preferred polling places over vote centers.

“There’s a general acceptance that we’re more progressive” than other states, Mindy Romero, the center’s director, said of California’s voting rules. “However, just because something is labeled as election reform doesn’t mean it really is.”

Vote centers would join other parts of California’s county-centric elections system. The state years ago stopped reimbursing counties for some election programs, meaning the state cannot legally impose a statewide template. That leads to voter confusion, some experts say.

“We give voters all these rights, but whether they’re able to exercise all these rights depends on the uniformity of the counties,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “Generally it’s the bigger and wealthier counties that often do a better job.”

More changes are in store following last month’s certification of VoteCal, the state’s new statewide voter registration database. In the works for a more than a decade, VoteCal has linked to all 58 counties, and statewide certification by the Secretary of State’s Office was the last remaining step.

That clears the way for pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds as well as a statewide registration and polling place lookup tool. People will be able to register to vote on Election Day starting in January. And the certification was a key step for automatic DMV registration of voters, which should be in place by July 2017, officials said.

Turnout of registered voters, however, remains a concern, particularly among younger voters. While it can vary depending on the election, California turnout generally has been on a downward trend in recent decades. Even with Bernie Sanders on the ballot, just 34 percent of registered voters between 18 and 25 years old cast votes in June, compared with a turnout rate of 66 percent for voters 65 and older.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla has traveled California in recent weeks to drum up interest in the Nov. 8 election. He’s working with colleges to put registration links on their websites and raise awareness about the upcoming election.

If the interest is there, people will find a way to vote, said several students at Woodland Community College, where Padilla spoke last month.

Christian Lahm, 19, of Woodland cast a mail ballot in the June election.

“They mail it to your house,” Lahm said. “I don’t know how they can make it any easier.”