Capitol Alert

California to register voters automatically at DMV

Robert Bland of Sacramento waits briefly in the first line at the new Department of Motor Vehicles office in south Sacramento on Aug. 17, 2006.
Robert Bland of Sacramento waits briefly in the first line at the new Department of Motor Vehicles office in south Sacramento on Aug. 17, 2006. Sacramento Bee file

In a bid to improve voter turnout in California elections, Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday signed legislation to automatically register to vote anyone who has a driver’s license or state identification card.

The measure was pushed by Democrats, whose candidates and causes typically benefit from higher turnout elections.

Assembly Bill 1461, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, will require the state to register adults to vote when they get or renew a driver’s license, unless they opt out. It will make California only the second state, after Oregon, to proactively register people to vote unless they decline.

The California legislation was a priority of Secretary of State Alex Padilla and followed the state’s record-low turnout in last year’s elections.

“In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental,” Padilla said in a statement after Brown announced signing the bill. “We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech or due process. The right to vote should be no different.”

The law will expand access to the polls as dozens of states are implementing significant new electoral restrictions, such as requiring photo identification to vote and cutting back on early voting. It drew praise from voting rights advocates and even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who tweeted that other states should follow California’s lead.

“California just became a national leader on voting rights,” Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement. “In too many states, our outdated and error-prone registration system blocks millions from the polls. Automatic permanent voter registration can transform voting in America. Other states should look to California as a bold new model for reform.”

Democrats said the measure would increase the ranks of people – particularly the young, poor and nonwhite – engaged in the political process. Republicans mostly opposed the measure. They warned it risked allowing people eligible to get driver’s licenses, but who are noncitizens and ineligible to vote, to register and cast fraudulent ballots.

Democratic lawmakers countered that the bill included protections to prevent that from happening.

In November, only 42.2 percent of voters showed up, the lowest participation in a general election since World War II, according to a committee analysis of the measure. The turnout rate reflected just 31 percent of the state population eligible to vote, including an estimated 6.6 million Californians not registered.

“Our democracy depends on the true participation of the populace,” state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, said during a floor debate last month.

The measure sought to build upon the federal Motor Voter Law, which required voter registration forms to be available at motor vehicle agencies. More than 20 years later, though, experts said the paper-based law’s impact has been spotty, with few states able to detail how their agencies are helping people register to vote or update their registrations.

In Oregon, an automatic registration law took effect earlier this year, with full implementation due in January. Election officials automatically register people to vote when the state’s motor vehicle agency relays information that the people are eligible. They can apply to opt out.

“I just think we’re getting the cart before the horse,” state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said last month.

Under the law, automatic voter registration would not take place until the state’s long-awaited voter database, VoteCal, is up and running; there is a system in place to protect the transfer of noncitizen information; and money has been appropriated by the Legislature.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, introduced the measure along with Gonzalez and Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.

Jim Miller: 916-326-5521, @jimmiller2 Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.

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