While we’re still waiting on the California Assembly to complete passage of universal (automatic) voter registration and send the bill to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, both the New York Times and the Washington Post editorial boards weighed in this week in support of a expanding universal voter registration to all states.
The Times writes, Entwining Two Rights in California: Voting and Driving:
For all the early excitement stirred by the presidential primary contests, a greater test of democracy than the candidates’ cut-and-thrust will be voter participation, a vital statistic which dropped from 62.3 percent in 2008 to 57.5 percent in the last presidential election. In part because of a welter of obstructionist state laws, more than 90 million Americans did not bother or care to vote in 2012.
The Democratic-majority Legislature in California, the most populous state, has just taken a major step toward resisting this alarming trend by approving a system of automatic voter registration for any citizen who obtains or updates a California driver’s license. Modeled on Oregon’s excellent “motor-voter” program, the new system cannot help but increase democratic participation.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who has long campaigned for fairer access to the ballot for voters shut out by undemocratic restrictions, should sign the measure with pleasure. In like manner, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey should sign the “Democracy Act” passed in June by the New Jersey Legislature establishing a similar motor-voter system. Regrettably, Mr. Christie, preoccupied with his own fading bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has indicated he opposes registering voters automatically via the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission.
The California bill was
enacted [not yet, minor amendments in the Assembly] despite solid opposition by Republicans who echoed the unproven claim that easier registration laws invite voter fraud. What they invite is healthier democracy. In California, an estimated 6.6 million citizens are not registered to vote, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla. Last year, tens of thousands of Californians tried vainly to register on Election Day through his office, too late to vote.
Once enacted and tied into computerized innovations expected by next year, the California system will help replace one of the many Dickensian variations that plague state voter laws — a pen-and-ink card registration system that causes bureaucratic delays and errors. A driver will be free to opt out or change voter registration, although refusing such a ballot blessing would be hard to fathom. While the key remains voters’ individual motivation, many will no longer face an antiquated hurdle to claiming their rights.
The Legislature acted after last year’s midterm elections attracted just 42 percent of eligible California voters, including a depressing 8.2 percent of the much sought after 18-to-24-years olds. Nationally, voter turnout was 36.3 percent for the midterms, the lowest since World War II.
California’s determined effort to get voters to the polls should help galvanize motor-voter measures now pending in more than a dozen other state legislatures.
The Post writes, California is making it easier to vote. Why aren’t other states?
ONLY 42 percent of eligible Californians voted in the last federal election. That was above the national turnout, 36.4 percent, but nothing to brag about. So good for California, which is joining Oregon in taking an obvious step toward encouraging turnout: automatic voter registration.
This year Oregon lawmakers decided that people getting driver’s licenses or state ID cards will be registered to vote unless they opt out. No one has to go on the voter list, in other words, but the default setting is registration. The law also makes it easier to keep voter rolls updated, as people must keep the information on their driver’s licenses current. State officials expect to automatically register a large fraction of the 800,000 unregistered eligible voters.
Next to California, though, Oregon’s numbers seem measly. The Golden State has nearly 7 million unregistered eligible voters and no less of a driving culture. California’s Senate wants to reach many of them with a bill it passed last week adopting Oregon’s basic system.
It is true that some people never come in contact with the DMV. A logical next step for California would be to require any state agency collecting the necessary information to send it along to the voter rolls.
It is also true that registering people doesn’t guarantee they will vote. But that doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t nudge them to join the voter rolls, anyway. The policy costs virtually nothing in money or individual liberty. It is worth doing even if the effects on turnout are marginal. Over time, it should lead people to assume that they are registered and that voting is an option, even if they start paying attention only on Election Day.
Other states should follow. But none should treat this modest reform as a cure-all, particularly in states that maintain other unnecessary barriers to voting. California, for example, already allows people who go to the wrong polling place to cast a provisional ballot, but other states do not. In fact, California and every other state should allow any resident to vote at any precinct without resorting to provisional ballots. That’s another obvious step, along with expansive early voting opportunities, better-run polling places, early registration at age 16 and an end to cynical voter ID laws. If the states don’t get on with such changes, Congress should mandate them for federal elections.
Neither California nor the country at large will ever reach full turnout. But there are sensible ways to get a lot closer.
When are the editorial boards of Arizona’s major newspapers, who routinely rail against low voter participation in Arizona elections, going to editorialize in favor of universal (automatic) voter registration in Arizona? Put the pressure on Arizona’s queen of voter suppression, Secretary of State Michele Reagan, and our lawless Tea-Publican legislature.