You can lead citizens to register, but can’t make them vote.
Soon, every eligible Californian who passes through a Department of Motor Vehicles office will be registered to vote unless they explicitly decline, the product of legislation intended to reverse a downward spiral of voter participation rates. The effort could add millions of new voters to the rolls, reshaping the electorate and recalibrating how campaigns are conducted.
But supporters acknowledge that the law will accomplish little unless those newly registered multitudes actually cast votes. Whether they avail themselves of that right will stand as the true test of Assembly Bill 1461’s ambitious aim of bringing disengaged and disaffected citizens into civic life.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done,” said Mindy Romero, a UC Davis professor who studies voter engagement. “These are people who by definition are disconnected from the political process,” and now, “they need to be reached out to and mobilized.”
Cynicism, not inconvenience, was the most common reason for not voting, Californians cited outside a DMV office in Sacramento on a recent morning. Several people weren’t certain whether they were registered or not. Those who said they do not vote had a simple rationale: They don’t believe it will matter.
“Votes are pretty much paid for,” said Laura Young, a 21-year-old barista who thought she may have registered during a previous DMV visit but said she has never voted. Other nonvoters cited an underwhelming presidential field and the effect of the Electoral College.
Such opinions inform critics of AB 1461, who point to the millions of registered Californians who haven’t voted as evidence the problem lies elsewhere.
“There’s no evidence that not being registered to vote is any impediment at all to voting,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, who voted against the bill. “I believe it’s important for people to make a choice – that’s what the vote is all about – and I think (the law) undervalues the right to vote.”
Others worry that voters who have not deliberately engaged in the process will be unprepared. “I think there is something worse than a citizen who does not vote, and that’s a citizen who casts an uninformed vote,” said Jon Fleischman, a Republican consultant who has assailed the law.
Regardless of the cure, participation rates from recent elections convey to many politicians a grim diagnosis for California’s democracy.
A record low 42.2 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the November 2014 elections. That total still dwarfs the vanishingly small turnout rates in local elections, such as the 23 percent of registered voters who chose the mayor of Los Angeles. A special state Senate election in Los Angeles in December brought out a little more than 7 percent of voters.
To Secretary of State Alex Padilla and legislative allies, the solution – embodied by AB 1461 and by another, less successful Padilla proposal that would have vastly expanded mailed ballots – is to make voting as simple and convenient as possible.
“If we start with the fundamental premise that democracy works better when more people participate, then you have to agree with our registration laws and reforms that afford voters more options for how to cast their ballot,” Padilla said.
As did other advocates of the measure, Padilla pointed to a study that analyzed Google data and found that, in the run-up to the 2012 election, millions of people searched for information on how to register after the deadline to do so had already passed. The conclusion: The desire to vote gets lost in the chaos of hectic, everyday life, particularly for people who aren’t accustomed to voting.
“Voting is a civil right. We have to make it as easy as possible,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who shepherded AB 1461 through the Legislature. “We have people with two jobs and three kids. A few days before the election, to find out there is one, and to figure out how and where to register, is a huge (difficulty).”
There are about 6.6 million Californians who are eligible to vote but not registered, Padilla’s office estimates. If even a small proportion become voters, it could carry profound consequences for elections – particularly for Latinos, whose voting numbers consistently lag behind their share of California’s population. The bill was a priority for the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
“Removing a barrier and getting more Latinos engaged in the process is truly important,” Gonzalez said.
That does not mean noncitizens will be registered. People will need to attest they’re citizens before being able to register. Undocumented immigrants applying for driver’s licenses, a right they gained this year, will not be offered the option.
Immigrant advocates fought to ensure immigrants wouldn’t inadvertently commit a felony by signing up. If ineligible people register and officials determine they have done so accidentally, they can cancel it without penalty.
“This came out of the desire to protect people,” said League of Women Voters of California leader Helen Hutchison.
Transforming newly registered voters into votes will be a massive undertaking. Many of the newly registered will have little experience with how the voting process works.
“This is going to be a group of folks who haven’t received any campaign literature before,” said Romero. “They will be registered at the DMV, but many may not know what that means or what happens next because of their lack of familiarity.”
Particularly for voters who are first-generation Americans, political consultants say, that could require implanting and nurturing a culture of civic duty. Minnie Santillan, a Democratic consultant who is also chief of staff to Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, said many children of immigrants such as herself “never learned that because our parents never did that.”
“You incorporate it into their culture, their community, and children will start to see that and it will become a learned behavior for young people,” Santillan said, envisioning a scenario in which “as they gather around with their family after church on Sunday, eating, they take out their ballot and start to vote.”
Campaigns and political parties have traditionally invested heavily in voter registration drives. That money and effort could now be redirected to educating and mobilizing voters.
“The biggest positive is really that Democrats don’t have to find that unregistered voter who’s sometimes like the needle in the haystack,” said California Democratic Party spokesman Michael Soller. “A Democratic volunteer has a road map to go and talk to the registered voters who live near them. So that will be a big change in terms of how the ground campaign will work.”
But that shift brings a new set of concerns. For one thing, some consultants believe their obligation to identify and communicate with new voters will mean campaigns become more expensive.
“The more people you have registered, the more expensive campaigns get,” Republican consultant Richard Temple said, and that could require spreading candidates more thinly. “Instead of talking to a voter three times, you’ll have to talk to them two times, because there’s someone else you’ll have to talk to twice.”
There’s also a question of who will hear that message. Campaigns have sophisticated models to identify and target voters with high odds of turning out – “You need to make sure you communicate with the most likely voters the most often,” Temple said – but new registrants who lack prior voting records could be neglected.
“The way our system is designed, the people principally responsible for voter outreach and information are the candidates and campaigns themselves,” Romero said. “If they don’t reach out to these new folks because they’re perceived as not as good of an investment or not as likely to turn into voters, then this is destined to fail.”
If nothing else, the new law will mean new business for firms such as Paul Mitchell’s Political Data Inc., which analyzes voter information – and a potential boon, Mitchell said, to the candidates who capitalize on the windfall of new voters.
“We’re going to have a huge pot of new voters coming in, potentially of voters who are not engaged either way, Democrat or Republicans, who are going to have to be pushed out to the polls aggressively and identified aggressively in terms of their political leanings,” Mitchell said. “This is not just a gimme to either party.”