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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.