Same-day voter registration law delayed until 2016

Californians can expect to wait at least two more years for the state’s same-day voter registration law to take effect. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s chief elections officer, says that the state won’t meet the legal requirements to implement the law until 2016 or later.

It’s been frequently ignored, but a late amendment to Assembly Bill 1436 required officials to conduct a statewide voter review before California’s same-day voter registration law can be implemented. According to the Legislative Counsel’s digest for the bill, it becomes operative “on January 1 of the year following the year in which the Secretary of State certifies that the state has a statewide voter registration database that complies with the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.”

The law was expected to take effect in 2014. However, to be operative for the 2014 general election, the Secretary of State needed to complete its HAVA compliance by December 31, 2013. Last month, Bowen took to Twitter to explain why the state won’t be adopting California’s landmark same-day voter registration law anytime soon.

“That law (CA Elections Code section 2170) will likely take effect in 2016 or later,” Bowen tweeted on Jan. 13.

VoteCal: Voter registration database debacle

The state’s HAVA compliance has been illusory, and the statewide voter registration database project nothing short of a debacle. VoteCal, the project for a new statewide voter registration database, began in 2006 as a replacement for the system built in 1995.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, has been critical of the project and worries the technology will be out-dated by the time it’s completed.

“VoteCal has been in development since 2006 and already failed once,” Alexander wrote in a November 2013 blog post comparing the project to the federal government’s troubled Obamacare website, “It is not scheduled to be in operation until 2017. It’s hard to imagine the technology they are planning for today will still be state-of-the-art by 2017 and that assumes the project is not further delayed.”

Same-day voter law not as extensive

Same-day voter registration is expected to boost voter turnout. But just how much — that’s up for debate.

“We expect same-day registration to be an important factor in helping to increase everyone’s participation in the electoral process,” said Mindy Romero of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. “In general, states with same-day registration laws have shown higher turnout rates. It should be noted though that California’s same day registration law is potentially not as extensive of a reform as similar laws in other states.”

In California, a provisional ballot will be issued to same-day voters and counted only upon later verification.

Secretary of State Candidates: Yet another tech problem

Bowen is term-limited and cannot run for re-election. Three of the candidates running to replace Bowen as Secretary of State criticized her office for the voter database delays.

“This is yet another example of the Secretary of State’s problems with technology,” said Republican Pete Peterson, who serves as executive director at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership.

Democrat Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman, a former vice-president of the good government group Common Cause, said the implementation delay was further proof that better management is needed at the top elections office.

“This is why it is imperative that our next Secretary has both the policy background and management experience to implement a new registration database without further delays,” said Cressman, a supporter of same-day voter registration.

Other reforms delayed with VoteCal

Same-day voter registration isn’t the only electorial reform put on hold by the state’s vote registration database. Other laws being delayed include the ability for 17 year olds to pre-register to vote and the email delivery of a sample ballot.

“Same-day registration is one of numerous election reforms enacted in recent years in California that are on hold as we wait for the state’s new voter registration database to be built and deployed,” Alexander said. “California is one of only two states with no statewide voter information lookup tools. These are online tools that let voters check if they are registered to vote or registered at an old address, find their polling place, check the status of their vote-by-mail ballot and see what contests will be on their ballot.”

At least one Secretary of State candidate has experience sidestepping bureaucratic delays related to the voter registration database. In 2011, State Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, authored the state’s online voter registration law. Yee’s hugely successful SB397, which helped register more than a million new voters in 2012, was drafted because an earlier measure — SB381 in 2008, by State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello — couldn’t take effect because of VoteCal delays.

“I look forward to the day in California when eligible voters will have the opportunity to walk into their local polling location, and immediately be able to cast a ballot and participate in our democracy,” Yee said.

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