CA Democrats push to ease voter registration

Denise Cross / flickr

California Democrats succeeded in sending Gov. Jerry Brown legislation that would substantially expand voter registration.

The move teed up a significant advance toward one of the party’s longtime statewide and nationwide goals. As MSNBC noted, Democrats see themselves at a disadvantage when turnout reaches relative lows. “More than 70 million eligible Americans aren’t registered to vote — a key reason why turnout fell to just 36 percent in last fall’s midterms,” according to the network. “The unregistered are more likely than the registered to be non-white, young and poor – all groups that lean Democratic. Nearly half of all eligible Latinos, and over half of all eligible millennials, aren’t registered.”

AB1461, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would ensure “eligible citizens would be registered to vote when they get their driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they opt out,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “The measure would not take effect until a new computerized voter registration database is established some time next year,” presumably before November’s elections.

Heated rhetoric

The bill returned California — and the political media — to the heated climate of 2002, when Prop. 52 hit state ballots. That initiative “would have allowed people to register and vote on the same day,” the Washington Post recalled. “Backed by Democratic groups and opposed by Republicans, the proposal would have made it much easier to increase the vote from targeted demographics. Your candidate is supported heavily by older voters? Pull up a bus outside a nursing home, pack it full and drive to the polling place. Anyone not already registered could vote within minutes regardless.”

Cries of likely fraud drove Prop. 52 down to defeat

This time around, the state GOP have raised louder alarms about the possibility of fraud. As the IJ Review observed, lawmakers have cited “the increased potential for non-citizens to gain access to voting through these automatic motor-voter programs. California law allows unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and opponents are concerned that they could inadvertently be registered to vote.” As the Times noted, state Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Murrieta, warned the bill could “further undermine the integrity of our election system.”

At the same time, civics-centric critics have cautioned that automatic registration could give greater weight to voters with a more casual or cavalier attitude toward the ballot. One editorialist at the Orange County Register suggested that, “while we celebrate the widespread expansion of the franchise, we ought to avoid cheapening it to the point where it is regarded as little more than a vehicle for self-expression. When you step into a voting booth, you hold the lives and livelihoods of your fellow citizens in your hands. If you can’t be bothered to register, perhaps you’re not ready for that responsibility.”

On the left, by contrast, the legislation was hailed as a great leap forward. In California, The Nation suggested, over 6.5 million voters would be registered. Although Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to signal whether he’ll sign the bill, The Nation added, he threw his weight behind the idea of automatic registration at the 1992 Democratic National Convention:

“Every citizen in America should have not only the right but the real opportunity to vote […]. And it’s the responsibility of government to ensure that by registering every American […]. They know how to get our taxes — why don’t they get our votes, and the votes of everyone in this country?”

Courting the unknown

At any rate, the bill has introduced a fresh layer of complexity to the California political calculus. By adding an “unknown” category to the way registrations tabulate political preferences, CA FWD noted, the bill would create a new question for candidates courting first-time voters: “How does a campaign target an unknown voter in the era of California’s Top Two Primary?”

Political Data, Inc.’s Paul Mitchell told CA FWD “we expect campaigns will do what they have with other new registrants: use age, geography, ethnicity, gender, household partisanship, and other factors to drive targeting decisions.” Reliable data on voters with unknown affiliations, in other words, was set to become a political premium.

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