Every American has the right to make his or her voice heard. Sadly, 50 years after the passage of the nation’s most important voting law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, millions of Americans continue to be silenced at the voting booth because of a deadly one-two punch to our democracy – attacks on voting rights and an explosion of unlimited political spending in our elections.
Coordinated efforts to curtail democratic participation among communities of color and young people have had such phenomenal success that millions of people are at risk of being denied their vote. Even in states that have encouraged voter participation by all those eligible, millions of Americans are still being left off voter registration rolls because of outdated systems.
As a result, our democracy excludes the voices of the most vulnerable and least powerful, precisely the groups of people that Pope Francis has spoken about. Because voting is the seminal act and voice of democracy, large swaths of our nation will be silenced unless we act strategically and boldly.
To meet this challenge, Secretary of State Alex Padilla deserves applause for his sponsorship of a bill that modernizes California’s voter registration system and makes it easier to participate in the democratic process. With Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, he has shepherded a landmark voting bill that is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
The California New Motor Voter Act (Assembly Bill 1461) would automatically register to vote any eligible person who obtains or renews a driver’s license, unless that person opts out. If enacted, it would be a huge step forward from the 1993 Motor Voter law, which required the Department of Motor Vehicles to allow folks to register to vote when renewing their license.
Why is this bill so important to Latinos? Because it comes at a time when our voices are not being heard.
Currently Latinos make up 60 percent of the unregistered population in California. In the last election, California’s voter turnout was a dismal 42 percent, and the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that white males – 43 percent of the state’s adult population – will make up 60 percent of voters in the next election.
Latinos – 34 percent of the adult population – are expected to make up just 18 percent of voters. Latino voter turnout has been disproportionately low in recent elections, with less than 20 percent of eligible Latinos voting in 2014.
If the governor believes, as I do, that all eligible Californians deserve easy access to voter registration, he should sign this bill, eliminate a roadblock to equality and help us claim our voice.
Imagine what would happen if we passed this law, registering 4 million California Latinos to vote in one fell swoop. That’s enough to dramatically change the landscape of the next election, forcing candidates to focus on issues that affect the Latino community.
As we’ve seen, our country is at a crossroads, and the next election will present us with a choice between old-fashioned anti-immigrant bigotry and an opportunity to make this country more inclusive.
This act could be a watershed moment for California, the moment when Latinos stand up and demand that the government act in their interests.
Cristóbal Alex is president of the Latino Victory Project, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., seeking to build political power within the Latino community.