by James Poulos | October 13, 2015 12:45 pm
Secretary of State Alex Padilla has succeeded in his quest to automatically register Californians to vote.
The bill he sponsored, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, touched off a fresh round of controversy over the wisdom and benefits of the approach to increasing turnout, which in California has sunken to historic lows. Last year, the state’s midterm elections mustered a 42 percent turnout, as NPR observed.
Recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that, while two thirds of respondents supported the legislation, “49 percent lean toward the Democratic Party and 22 percent toward the Republican Party; 29 percent lean toward neither party or are unsure.” The imbalance has led many Republicans to express frustration that Democrats were supporting automatic registration for their own benefit. Slightly complicating the picture, however, the PPIC poll also indicated an ideological tilt to the right among unregistered adults: “37 percent are conservative, 31 percent are liberal, and 31 percent are moderate.”
Proponents of the law argued that its mechanics were straightforward and efficient. “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,” as the Huffington Post explained. “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.”
“Citizens should not be required to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote,” Padilla said in a statement. “We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech or due process. The right to vote should be no different.” Voters, NPR noted, “retain the right to opt out, cancel or change party affiliation at any time,” adding that Padilla’s office pegged the number of eligible but unregistered potential California voters at 6.6 million.
Brown signed the bill in conjunction with a suite of others, including “a bill permitting county elections officials to offer conditional registration and provisional voting at satellite locations during the 14 days immediately preceding election day,” another that will install secure ballot drop boxes “at shopping malls, libraries and other spots,” and one billing the cost of election recounts to the state, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Together, the new laws were intended, the governor’s office said, “to help improve elections and expand voter rights and access in California.”
But critics said the law wouldn’t properly distinguish between citizens and noncitizens during the registration process — a point of contention amid the ongoing debate over efforts to reduce the legal consequences of unlawful entry into the state. Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, warned that state databases “lack the necessary safeguards to keep noncitizens off the voter rolls,” according to The Washington Times. True the Vote spokesman Logan Churchwell went further, the Times added, asserting that California officials “specifically chose not to make noncitizen license holders searchable in their DMV database.”
On Fox News, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a libertarian commentator, raised the specter of mass voting by noncitizens. “So if you are an illegal alien in California, get a driver’s license, register to vote, you can vote in local, state and federal elections in California and those votes count,” he said.
But other libertarians have claimed that the changes would heighten virtually the opposite sort of risk. The American Civil Liberties Union joined Republican lawmakers in opposing the bill. “Since California’s DMV now issues driver’s licenses to immigrants who are living in the country illegally, the group fears those drivers will be registered to vote mistakenly, risking their ability to stay in the country,” reported the San Jose Mercury News. “State and federal laws strictly forbid illegal immigrants from voting.”
The bill, passed as Assembly Bill 1461 and authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, will take effect this coming January.
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