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A Watershed Moment for Voter Registration

California’s transformative bill could add millions of new voters to the rolls in the most populous state in the country. Other states should follow.

  • Jonathan Brater
  • Sophie Schuit
September 14, 2015

The Cali­for­nia legis­lature just passed a bill that has the poten­tial to add millions of new voters to the rolls. If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs it into law, the plan would dramat­ic­ally modern­ize voter regis­tra­tion in the Golden State by repla­cing old-fash­ioned, ink-and-paper cards with a system that auto­mat­ic­ally registers eligible citizens when they visit the DMV. Auto­matic regis­tra­tion in the most popu­lous state in the coun­try is a water­shed moment in the effort to fix our broken elec­tion system: Cali­for­nia will be putting the respons­ib­il­ity for ensur­ing eligible citizens can vote where it should be — on the govern­ment, not the indi­vidual.

Auto­matic regis­tra­tion does two very small but trans­form­at­ive things. First, it registers eligible citizens when they inter­act with govern­ment agen­cies, unless they decide they do not want to be signed up. That is a subtle, but impact­ful change — the status quo method is to keep people off the rolls unless they take an action to get them­selves registered. The second is that govern­ment agen­cies will elec­tron­ic­ally trans­fer voter regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion instead of making elec­tion offi­cials hand-enter data from paper forms.

Auto­matic regis­tra­tion is a straight­for­ward solu­tion to a real prob­lem. Our voter rolls are frayed — one in four eligible citizens is not signed up at all, and one in eight regis­tra­tion records is invalid or has seri­ous errors. Auto­matic regis­tra­tion will increase the accur­acy of the voting lists. Digit­ally sent inform­a­tion intro­duces fewer errors than when elec­tion offi­cials have to decipher voter regis­tra­tion forms and then hand-enter the inform­a­tion. That means fewer Elec­tion Day prob­lems, like long lines and disen­fran­chised voters. And it means more of Cali­for­ni­a’s eligible voters will get on, and stay on, the rolls. Auto­matic regis­tra­tion will also save the state money. In Arizona, Mari­copa County found that processing a paper applic­a­tion costs 83 cents while an elec­tron­ic­ally trans­ferred and processed applic­a­tion only costs 3 cents.

Cali­for­nia is not alone in making this ground­break­ing reform. In March, Oregon passed its “New Motor Voter” law, becom­ing the first state nation­wide to adopt auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. New Jersey’s legis­lature passed a similar bill in June that awaits the governor’s signa­ture.

These states have made changes that could cata­pult their civic parti­cip­a­tion to new heights. If all three imple­ment their bills, 16 percent of the nation’s popu­la­tion would live in states with auto­matic regis­tra­tion — that’s a huge achieve­ment in just a few months.

These states are the vanguard of a broader move­ment: At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have intro­duced bills that would auto­mat­ic­ally register citizens. At the national level, pres­id­en­tial candid­ates Hillary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders have endorsed auto­matic, univer­sal regis­tra­tion, and at least two bills have been intro­duced in Congress — one sponsored by Sanders.

The Cali­for­nia Legis­lature’s decision to push forward is an import­ant advance­ment of voting rights. Gov. Brown should sign the bill, making auto­matic regis­tra­tion the law. And other states should follow.

(Photo: Wiki­pe­dia)