The California legislature just passed a bill for universal (automatic) voter registration that has the potential to add millions of new voters to the voter rolls. Governor Jerry Brown has 30 days to decide whether to sign the bill.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports, A Watershed Moment for Voter Registration:
If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs the bill into law, the plan would dramatically modernize voter registration in the Golden State by replacing old-fashioned, ink-and-paper cards with a system that automatically registers eligible citizens when they visit the DMV. Automatic registration in the most populous state in the country is a watershed moment in the effort to fix our broken election system: California will be putting the responsibility for ensuring eligible citizens can vote where it should be — on the government, not the individual.
The Brennan Center explains why California’s automatic registration bill is so important, as the bill makes two very small but transformative changes. California’s legislature is one of many that have considered automatic registration, based on a Brennan Center proposal, and is the third state legislature to pass such monumental reform.
Editorial boards across the country have recognized the California Legislature’s initiative to move forward with this transformative reform. The New York Times, Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, and Boston Globe have all called for Governor Brown to sign the bill, and Ari Berman of The Nation wrote about how automatic registration can transform American politics. During his 1992 Democratic National Convention speech, Governor Brown called for the government to register every American through the use of technology.
The Brennan Center for justice further writes, Governor Jerry Brown Should Sign Historic Voting Bill:
With the presidential campaign in full swing, political jockeying dominates the airwaves. But while pundits focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, the biggest voting reform in a quarter century is unfolding out west: California’s legislature passed a bill enacting automatic voter registration. Gov. Jerry Brown should sign it and bring 21st century registration to the Golden State.
There are nearly 7 million eligible Californians who are not registered to vote. Automatically signing up voters could make a huge dent in that problem. Here’s how it works: First, eligible citizens are registered to vote when they are at a DMV office, unless they decide they do not want to be signed up. That is a subtle, but impactful change. The current method keeps eligible citizens off the voting rolls unless they take an action to get themselves registered. Second, the DMV will electronically transfer voter registration information instead of making election officials hand-enter data from paper forms.
These two changes may sound small, but it would transform the state’s system by putting the burden of registration where it should be — on the government. This could add millions to the rolls, save money, and boost election security by reducing typos and mistakes.
California is the latest state — and by far the largest — to pass this groundbreaking reform. In March, Oregon passed an automatic registration law that may add hundreds of thousands of new voters to its rolls. Soon after, the New Jersey legislature passed a similar bill (unfortunately, as of now, Gov. Chris Christie has indicated he would veto it). In 2015 alone, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have introduced legislation proposing automatic registration. It has also reached the national level, with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders endorsing the reform. California could advance automatic registration on a grand scale. In fact, if Oregon, New Jersey, and California enact this policy, 16 percent of the nation’s population will live in states with automatic registration.
The country needs it. Our election system is broken in many ways — a common lament in election years — but voter registration is one of its greatest flaws. Fifty million eligible Americans are not registered to vote, and 1 in 8 registrations nationwide have serious errors. Much of the problem stems from our old-fashioned, ink-and-paper system, which leads to incomplete and error-ridden rolls.
Making matters worse, states pushed through a wave of restrictive voting laws in recent years, and the Supreme Court enfeebled a key protection under the Voting Rights Act. The result: Too many Americans experience registration difficulties while also facing greater obstacles to the ballot.
California can take important steps forward with this voting reform bill. To be sure, automatic registration needs safeguards to ensure that only eligible citizens are added, that those who do not wish to participate have that option, and that people registered because of government error are not punished for it. But California, like Oregon before it, can put these checks in place.
In 1992, Governor Brown voiced some prophetic words: “Every citizen in America should have not only the right but the real opportunity to vote. And it’s the responsibility of government to ensure that by registering every American. And that’s why we have to fight to see that government does the job with all its bureaucracy and its computers.”
Today, we have the modern tools and the political will to make that a reality. But first, it will take one more old-fashioned, ink-and-paper transaction: a stroke of Governor Brown’s pen.
Ari Berman of The Nation explains How Automatic Voter Registration Can Transform American Politics.