Can a new law get California’s 7 million unregistered voters to register?

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California has more voters than any state in the nation, but many millions of eligible people in this state don’t even register, let alone vote. To put it mildly, recent voter participation here has been pitiful.

That could be changing, though, at least when it comes to voter registration.

California officials are in the process of working out the logistics of a new law that will automatically register people to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license.

With its motor-voter law, California joins a group of states that are actively trying to increase participation in elections.

But some states have been going in the opposite direction – imposing restrictive new rules that make it more difficult for people to register to vote, often minorities and the poor. Those laws are being passed to discourage voter fraud, even though there’s scant evidence that electoral fraud is a problem. Critics say they are meant to disenfranchise segments of the population for political reasons.

Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, has worked to fight some of those restrictive laws. He says California is on the right track, but still has a long way to go.

John Brater: If you look at the last presidential election cycle, California was 38th in the country in voter registration. That was in 2012. There are almost 7 million eligible, but unregistered voters in the state. So looking back, California is on the low end when it comes to getting people registered and voting. But by passing automatic voter registration, California has put itself at the forefront of making it easier for voters to participate. And so in future elections there’s a good chance that California is going to be leading the way.

KCRW: One official from the ACLU called California’s law automated, but not automatic, meaning that individuals can opt out if they’d like. How does California’s law work?

Basically automatic voter registration is two things. It’s changing voter registration from an opt in to an opt out. And it’s making the voter registration process electronic.

California is offering licenses now to undocumented immigrants. How will this prevent them from registering to vote?

There will be a separate process. You’re only going to be put in the automatic voter registration if you are eligible so if you indicate that you are a citizen and that you meet the other requirements for voter registration.

How come the automatic registration is not in place for this election cycle?

Part of the reason is that it’s contingent on California putting in place the final touches of its statewide electronic voter registration system. They can’t implement the law until that is done under the terms of the bill. And so we expect that to occur in 2017.

A handful of other states do have motor voter laws that been passed in recent years. Has there been increasing voter participation in addition to registration in those states?

Well the first state to implement automatic voter registration and what they call new motor voter was Oregon. Oregon passed their law in 2015 and they started implementing it early this year. The early results are very exciting. If you look at the new rate of voter registrations that they’re getting through the DMV, they’re getting about four times as many new registrations as they were before the new law went into effect. And if we can see similar numbers in California that could go a long way into cutting into that 6-7 million people in California who are eligible but not registered to vote.

But we don’t know yet how many of those people are actually voting, right?

We’ll have to see what the turnout looks like, but what we can look to from the past is that registration is a big barrier to participation. If you look at voters who are registered, a large percentage of them vote. But you know across the country there are about 50 million people who are eligible but not registered. And so as you say registration is only the first step toward participation. But by removing that barrier we can expect to see better participation in the states that put this into place.

It seems there are opposing trends taking place in the country right now, one to increase voter participation through laws like California’s motor voter law. But there have also been a number of laws passed in states that are trying to suppress the vote. Could you speak to some of those laws?

What California is doing is a welcome change from a wave of restrictions we’ve seen across the country. We saw efforts to curb voting rights really pick up after the 2010 election. And where we stand now in 2016, 17 states will have new voting restrictions for the first time in a presidential election.

Those laws are being passed with the objective of eliminating voter fraud. Is there any evidence that they do that or has voter fraud been an issue in those places?

Nobody wants there to be anything untoward going on there are elections, but the reality is that these laws are not really addressing the problems we do have in our election system. The biggest problem, you know, if you’re really concerned about election integrity, is the voter rolls. The voter rolls are incomplete and they’re out of date. Nationwide there’s about 24 million that have serious errors. Rather than making it harder for people to vote with documentary requirements that don’t really prevent any of the problems that actually take place, we should be doing things like California is doing to modernize our voter registration system to make sure the rules are kept up to date.

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson