California Passes Landmark Automatic Registration Bill

September 11, 2015

Today, the California legislature passed a bill that will automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they interact with the DMV. State officials estimate that with approximately 6.6 million eligible but unregistered voters, the provision could dramatically boost California’s registration rate, which was ranked 38th in the country in 2012.

The Golden State’s plan is part of a broader trend to modernize voting and move toward universal registration. California is the third state in the country to pass automatic registration — which puts the onus on the government to sign up eligible citizens — and by far the largest.

In March, Oregon became the first state to enact this groundbreaking reform. New Jersey’s legislature passed a bill in June, but Gov. Chris Christie (R) has yet to sign it. Overall, legislators in 17 states plus Washington, D.C. have introduced similar proposals. 

This momentum has also carried into the 2016 presidential race. Both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have embraced automatic, universal registration.

“We must take action to improve the record low voter turnout in recent California elections,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “Democracy is stronger when more citizens can vote. Unfortunately, more than 6.6 million California citizens are eligible but unregistered to vote. The New Motor Voter Act would make voter registration a more efficient, modern process for millions of California citizens.

“Citizens are currently required to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote through registration,” Padilla added. “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.”

“California’s bill is a much-needed turnabout. The state has lagged behind on voting technology for years. With one stroke of his pen, Governor Brown can bring California to the front of the pack,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Nationwide, too many states still make new voters fill out ink-and-paper forms to sign up. Automatic registration modernizes how citizens get on the rolls and creates a more accurate, secure, and cost-efficient system.”

The push to modernize voting also comes amid a larger battle over voting rights in America. Since the 2010 election, 21 states have new voting restrictions in place — and 15 states will have stricter rules in effect in 2016 than they had in 2012. At the same time, since the 2012 election, 23 states plus the District of Columbia have passed new laws to improve voting.

Read more about Voter Registration Modernization.

For more information, or to set up an interview, contact Erik Opsal (Brennan Center, erik.opsal@nyu.edu, 646-292-8356) or Sam Mahood (Secretary Padilla’s office, sam.mahood@sos.ca.gov, 916-653-6575).