With new law, California leads in voting reform

San Jose Mercury News

When Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 1461, the New Motor Voter Act, he ushered in a new chapter of California electoral history. The law seeks to boost California’s recent record-low election turnout rates with a new system of automated registration.

Under existing law, citizens must register to vote before they can cast a ballot. The new law all but eliminates this step by registering anyone who applies for a new driver’s license, renews an old one or updates an address with the DMV, unless they opt out. With the stroke of a pen, California is now at the vanguard of American voting reform.

The United States is one of the few established democracies in the world that puts the burden of registering to vote on individual citizens. Other countries are far more aggressive about automatically registering all citizens. In Canada and Great Britain, the government actually scours official databases for citizens who could be registered but are not. The new law brings California closer to this international norm.

It’s an exciting change that will fundamentally alter many aspects of the voting experience in California. But the law could be made still more expansive and, regardless, there is much work to be done to ensure its effectiveness.

The impact of the law on registration will be dramatic. Over time, it could add more than 6 million people to the registration rolls – more than the total populations of 35 states.

Most of these new registrants would come from underrepresented communities, including people of color, the young and the low income. More than 60 percent would be Latino or Asian American, according to the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Registration in California could rise by 70 percent among these groups, an increase large enough to move the needle for the nation as a whole.

In addition to adding new voters to the rolls, the law will help manage the ones already there. People who move have always had to take responsibility for updating their registration, and many forget before it’s too late to vote in the next election. Under the new automated system, address updates will be handled seamlessly throughout the year as movers update their addresses with the DMV.

But like any law, the motor voter law has its limitations. The system cannot be put in place until the secretary of state certifies the new statewide voter registration database – likely next summer. And it grants the DMV one year beyond that to manage its side of the process, meaning we might not see any automated registrants in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Furthermore, limiting the process to those who use the DMV after the voter registration database is certified slows the law’s impact. And while the DMV will catch most of the unregistered Californians, it is not the only government agency that could validate voters. Agencies like Covered California and CalWORKs also verify residency and citizenship, and so could be used to register citizens, as well.

Finally, automated registrants are not automatic voters. New registrants will have been disconnected from our state’s electoral process. Many will need to be reminded that they have been added to voter rolls. Many more will be turned off by politics, or will have never been reached by campaigns or candidates.

Aggressive outreach can help inform and mobilize all new registrants. This will require strong leadership as well as collaborative outreach and education efforts by media, election offices, schools, state and local government and civic organizations. Voting is a collective act, and the law will need a collective effort to deliver on its promise.

We believe California is up to the task of mobilizing these new voters, and it should seize the opportunity. With the low voter turnout of recent elections, the strength of our democracy may be at stake.

Eric McGhee is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, where he focuses on elections, political reform and public opinion. Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.