California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Saturday signed a bill that will automatically register voters, which was sent to him by the Democratic-controlled state legislature in September.
Since there are between 6 and 7 million Californians who remain unregistered to vote, voting rights advocates see the measure as a way to save money, boost security and reduce barriers to participation in elections. The state experienced record low turnout for a regularly scheduled general election last November, in which just 42 percent of Californians who were registered voted.
Brown had until Oct. 11 to either sign or reject the California New Motor Voter Act.
“In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who had sponsored the bill, in a statement. “I applaud Governor Brown for his leadership and bold action to increase voter participation in our state.”
The way automatic registration works is relatively simple: Eligible citizens are registered to vote when they show up at a Department of Motor Vehicles office to obtain a driver’s license or state ID. The DMV gives the eligible voter a chance to opt out if they prefer not to register. If the person does not opt out, the DMV electronically transfers their voter registration information to the Secretary of State’s office, rather than making election officials enter data by hand from paper registration forms. (The federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 already requires states to give eligible voters the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for a new or renewed driver’s license.)
Various voting rights groups, like the Brennan Center for Justice, had pushed the legislation. iVote, a group focusing on automatic registration, spent six figures on newspaper advertisements asking Californians to voice their support for the bill. Sixty-nine percent of all Californians and 67 percent of likely voters favor the proposal, according to a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California.
Brown spoke about the need for universal registration during a speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, saying that every American should have not just the right but “a real opportunity” to vote. But Brown had stayed silent as the California legislature debated the bill and hadn’t indicated which way he was leaning after it sent the bill to his desk to sign.
“It’s the responsibility of government to ensure that [opportunity] by registering every American,” he said in 1992. “And that’s why we have to fight to see that government does the job with all its bureaucracy and its computers.”
The United States is one of the world’s only developed countries where the onus for registration is on voters. In Canada, the burden is flipped, with the government automatically registering citizens when they come in contact with state agencies.
Oregon became the first state to pass an automatic registration bill in March. That created momentum for the concept among Democrats, who subsequently introduced similar bills in 17 states, the District of Columbia and in Congress. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also came out in favor of the measure in June.
Automatic registration would become law in New Jersey, where the Democratic-controlled legislature passed their bill, if Republican Gov. Chris Christie wasn’t totally opposed to the concept. There’s a chance it could still pass via a ballot initiative next year.
Republicans who are opposed to automatic registration argue that the practice is a privacy risk and could make it easier for noncitizens to commit voter fraud. In addition, they argue that is isn’t difficult to fill out a registration form and that automatic registration is a form of coercion, forcing people to participate in the democratic process when they may prefer to stay out of it.
Defenders of automatic registration argue that the practice is more secure than the current system of collecting paper registration forms and that those who are newly registered aren’t forced to vote.
“Automated voter registration is actually a more secure way of doing things,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told HuffPost in September. Potential voters “have to demonstrate proof of age, the vast majority of time people are showing a birth certificate or a passport, which also reflects citizenship. That’s arguably more secure than someone checking a box under penalty of perjury,” Padilla said.
While an increasing number of states are moving toward online registration, states controlled by Republicans have also eliminated same-day registration and cut back early voting, citing concerns about voter fraud or costs. Democrats say such restrictions make it more difficult for students, seniors, minorities and voters with disabilities to participate in elections. Automatic registration is seen as one way to go on the offense on voting rights, rather than remain on defense in states across the country.