America’s most populous state is on its way to automatically registering its citizens to vote. By a 24-15 vote, the California State Senate voted in early September to automatically register anyone that receives or renews a state driver’s license, unless they opt out of registration. The House previously passed a similar measure. Government Jerry Brown has not taken a position on the bill. However, all signs point to him supporting automatic registration. Brown, a Democrat, previously pushed for and signed legislation allowing Californians to register to vote on the day of the election.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the key backer of the legislation, says that nearly 7 million Californians are currently eligible to vote but are not registered to do so. The automatic voter bill is designed to reduce that number and bring more people to the polls come election time.
Throughout the last decade Republicans around the country have taken steps to restrict voting, including voter id measures requiring certain forms of identification in order to cast a ballot, reduced early voting days, and shorter voting hours. In addition, Republicans have supported challenges to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and have stymied attempts to pass legislation fixing the law after parts of it were held unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Using the pre-text of reducing fraud, the methods employed have been largely designed to make it more difficult for traditionally Democratic constituents, such as college students, millennials, and transient service sector workers, to cast a ballot come election time. Now in blue states around the country, including here in California, legislators are taking steps to increase voter turnaround and paint a clear contrast between policies meant to promote democracy with the policies of their Republican opposition designed to stymie the voter.
The California motor voter legislation is modeled largely after Oregon’s similar law that went into effect in 2015. While signing the bill, Oregon Democratic Governor Kate Brown noted that it can increase the state’s rolls by as many as 300,000 voters, or more than 10% in a state currently home to about 2.2 million residents who are registered to vote. Like Oregon, California legislators hope that the automatic voter legislation will pave the way to an “opt out” mindset to voting, versus the current system requiring residents to opt in before being able to cast a ballot.
In addition to Oregon and California, earlier this year New Jersey’s Democrat controlled legislature passed an automatic voter registration bill. However, Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Chris Christie is unlikely to sign it. Last June, Christie was quoted saying “is it really too much to ask someone to fill out a form?”
In contrast to Governor Christie, fellow 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has staked out a pro-voter position early on in her campaign. In a key speech on voting rights last June, Clinton laid out a campaign policy platform designed to boost turnout. Clinton called for all Americans to be automatically registered upon turning 18 unless they opt out. Clinton went further by criticizing Republicans for engaging in a systemic effort to disenfranchise people of color, the poor, and the young.