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California Passes Landmark Automatic Registration Bill

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.

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).