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VRM in the States: California

California approved automatic voter registration in October 2015.

Published: March 1, 2018

In Octo­ber 2015, Cali­for­nia became the second state in the nation to adopt auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. Eligible citizens who inter­act with the DMV will be registered to vote or have their exist­ing regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion updated, unless they decline. As a part of the reform, voter regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion will be trans­ferred elec­tron­ic­ally from the DMV to the Secret­ary of State’s Office. Cali­for­nia is sched­uled to launch the system in April 2018. State offi­cials estim­ate that with approx­im­ately 6.6 million eligible but unre­gistered voters, Cali­for­nia could signi­fic­antly increase its regis­tra­tion rate, which ranked 42nd in the coun­try in 2014. Learn more about auto­matic regis­tra­tion here.

In the lead-up to the sign­ing of Cali­for­ni­a’s bill into law, the Bren­nan Center and others encour­aged Gov. Jerry 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 letters from organ­iz­a­tions, legis­lat­ors, and constitu­ents urging him to sign auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion into law, and wide press cover­age surroun­ded the Cali­for­nia legis­lature’s passage of the bill. Click here to review the letters and see the extens­ive press cover­age. 

Prior Advances in Voter Regis­tra­tion Modern­iz­a­tion

This reform builds upon Cali­for­ni­a’s exist­ing voter regis­tra­tion modern­iz­a­tion efforts:

  • Elec­tronic Voter Regis­tra­tion: Cali­for­nia is currently imple­ment­ing elec­tronic voter regis­tra­tion at DMV offices in advance of trans­ition­ing to an auto­matic regis­tra­tion system in 2018. Cali­for­nia launched elec­tronic voter regis­tra­tion for in-county address updates in the mid-1990s. Cali­for­nia is currently fully elec­tronic for in-county voter address updates only, and still uses paper for out-of-county address updates and new applic­ants. For new applic­a­tions, paper applic­a­tions are mailed to county elec­tion offi­cials. For in-county address updates, voter regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion is forwar­ded elec­tron­ic­ally to elec­tion offi­cials.
  • Online Voter Regis­tra­tion: Cali­for­nia launched online voter regis­tra­tion through the Secret­ary of State’s office in 2012. Eligible citizens with a state driver’s license or non-driver ID can use the system to register to vote and update their regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion. Voters without a state ID or a signa­ture on file can submit all inform­a­tion online elec­tron­ic­ally, but must provide a live signa­ture to final­ize regis­tra­tion. Cali­for­nia counties are required to accept signa­tures to complete applic­a­tions up to, and includ­ing on, Elec­tion Day.
  • Elec­tion Day Regis­tra­tion: Cali­for­nia approved Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion in 2012. Indi­vidu­als may register and vote at the polls on Elec­tion Day and during the early voting period.
  • Preregis­tra­tion: 16– and 17-year-olds can preregister to vote. Those who preregister can vote once they turn 18 without need­ing to re-register.

Gains from Voter Regis­tra­tion Modern­iz­a­tion in Cali­for­nia

The steps Cali­for­nia has taken thus far have yiel­ded increases in voter regis­tra­tion and finan­cial bene­fits for the state. For example:  

  • Cali­for­nia elec­tion offi­cials estim­ate that online regis­tra­tion saves approx­im­ately $2.34 per regis­tra­tion, and predict a future increase in cost savings.
  • Cali­for­nia offi­cials were able to imple­ment online voter regis­tra­tion at a cost of $1.8 million, an outlier by orders of magnitude relat­ive to other states imple­ment­ing online voter regis­tra­tion systems. This sum also included the costs of build­ing the statewide voter regis­tra­tion system—C­ali­for­nia was the only state that did not have a statewide data­base at the time of imple­ment­a­tion. Cali­for­nia applied for and received grants to cover this expense.
  • Between Novem­ber 2014 and Novem­ber 2016, the state received 1,595,415 new voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions through its online portal.