Automatic voter registration is no panacea for low turnout

Mike Lee votes in Sacramento in the June 2014 primary, when only 18 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Mike Lee votes in Sacramento in the June 2014 primary, when only 18 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Associated Press file

California voter turnout has reached record lows. Only 18 percent of 24 million eligible adults cast ballots in the June 2014 primary and only 31 percent last November. As a result, state lawmakers and good government groups are searching for new ways to increase participation in elections.

One proposal that is gaining traction – and was discussed at a recent Public Policy Institute of California event with Secretary of State Alex Padilla and other officials – is to import an automatic voter registration system from Oregon.

There’s no question that such a system would swell California’s voter rolls. But would it significantly increase turnout? That’s much less clear.

Here’s how automatic registration would work: The Department of Motor Vehicles would be required to provide the secretary of state with the records of each citizen who receives or renews a driver’s license, and the secretary of state would be required to provide these records to county elections officials. County officials would notify these citizens that in 21 days they will be registered to vote with no party preference, unless they declare a party affiliation or decline to be registered. Those who do not respond would be automatically registered as no party preference.

Currently, about 6.6 million eligible adults are not registered to vote, so automatic registration could increase state voter rolls from 17.7 million to 24.3 million.

But the potential impact on the two-party system may present a major stumbling block to its approval. If all of the eligible nonvoters were registered and did not choose a party affiliation, today’s partisan electorate (43 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican, 5 percent other party and 24 percent no party preference) would give way. The largest share of registered voters would have no party preference – 44 percent, while the other shares would drop to 31 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican and 4 percent other party.

However, the outcomes of elections might not change that much. Among eligible nonvoters in the March PPIC statewide survey, 39 percent said they are closer to the Democratic Party and 24 percent said they are closer to the Republican Party. Taking these party leanings into account, an electorate that includes all of the eligible nonvoters and currently registered voters would be remarkably similar to today’s voter rolls.

More important, would automatic voter registration cause a surge in voting?

The findings in our March survey are not encouraging. When asked why they were not registered to vote, only 16 percent of eligible nonvoters said they did not register because they were “too busy.”

Many others gave answers such as “It doesn’t matter,” “I’m not interested,” “I don’t want to,” “I have no confidence in government,” and “I don’t know the issues.” These responses indicate low levels of interest, trust in government and knowledge of the issues – problems that cannot be addressed simply by changing the registration process.

Unless eligible nonvoters become more interested and engaged, adding more of them to the voter rolls might even lead to new lows in the proportion of registered voters who cast ballots in California elections.

It’s clear that more will need to be done to make it easier for Californians to gather information and cast ballots. There are many good ideas, but most will cost money and involve risks for the political status quo. Is there a consensus on increasing voter participation – and do we have the political will to implement new strategies?

With voters facing many decisions in 2016, let’s hope that we can take steps to broaden public input about California’s future.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.