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Expert Brief

Automatic Voter Registration in California

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a transformative bill that could add millions of new voters to the rolls in the most populous state in the country. Other states should follow.

Published: October 12, 2015

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s signa­ture, Cali­for­nia has become the second state to adopt auto­matic regis­tra­tion, an excit­ing reform that is gain­ing momentum across the coun­try. Cali­for­ni­a’s law has the poten­tial to add millions of new voters to the rolls through auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. State offi­cials estim­ate that with approx­im­ately 6.6 million eligible but unre­gistered voters, the law could dramat­ic­ally boost Cali­for­ni­a’s regis­tra­tion rate, which ranked 38th in the coun­try in 2012. Cali­for­ni­a’s legis­lature is the third to pass auto­matic regis­tra­tion, based on a Bren­nan Center proposal.

Auto­matic regis­tra­tion makes two trans­form­at­ive changes to voter regis­tra­tion. Eligible citizens who inter­act with govern­ment agen­cies are registered to vote unless they decline, and agen­cies trans­fer voter-regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion elec­tron­ic­ally to elec­tion offi­cials. By giving voters the oppor­tun­ity to decline in person during their DMV inter­ac­tions, Cali­for­ni­a’s law will create a seam­less, paper­less process that will be more conveni­ent and less error-prone for voters, DMV staff, and elec­tion offi­cials.

In the lead-up to the sign­ing of Cali­for­ni­a’s bill into law, the Bren­nan Center and others encour­aged Gov. Brown to heed his own call, during his 1992 Demo­cratic National Conven­tion speech, for the govern­ment to register every Amer­ican through the use of tech­no­logy.

The governor also received scores of letters from organ­iz­a­tions, legis­lat­ors, and constitu­ents urging him to sign auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion into law.

Wide press cover­age surroun­ded the Cali­for­nia legis­lature’s monu­mental step forward in passing this bill.

Thou­sands of citizens urged the governor to sign AB 1461 through peti­tion drives organ­ized by grass­roots civic groups: