California, seeking to fight overwhelming indifference among its citizens to the electoral process, will now automatically register qualified drivers to vote when they obtain a license. Until now, they could opt in for registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office, but now they are in if they don’t opt out.
Californians don’t register, and if they do, they don’t vote. Around 6.6 million people in the state are eligible to register but decline. They are like the rest of the country, only more so.
In the midterm election of November 2014, 41.7% of registered California voters went to the polls, compared to 60% in 2010. But turnout was actually much worse (pdf) than that. Only 30.9% of eligible voters actually bothered to register—and cast a ballot—last year. The ones who do vote tend to be older, wealthier and whiter.
Assembly Bill 1461 directs the DMV to send information to the Secretary of State’s office on all successful applicants for driver’s licenses and state identification cards. Those records will be considered a completed affidavit of voting registration and eligible drivers will automatically be on the voter rolls unless they specifically ask not to be.
Oregon passed similar legislation in March, the first state to do so.
The federal government passed a national Motor Voter law in 1993 to facilitate citizens registering to vote at DMV offices. But not every state implemented the law the same way, and a report from the liberal think tank Demos said California was among the six worst. The knock on California was that the voter registration application was a separate document to be filled out, rather than just a checked box on the driver’s license application.
“California just became a national leader on voting rights,” Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement. But it would be hard to say who the state is leading. Dozens of states with conservative electorates have rolled back voting rights in myriad ways.
The latest in-your-face discrimination was unveiled by Alabama a couple weeks ago when they closed 31 DMV offices that served primarily minority communities, making it much harder for them to acquire IDs required by the state’s strict 2011 voter ID law. Alabama and states like them have the blessing of the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, which deemed that voting civil rights abuses of the past (mostly in the South) have been rectified.
Some Republicans opposed the new California law, fearing fraud. They also might be dreading the addition of millions of young and minority voters who do not traditionally vote for the GOP. They tend to be the citizens least likely to vote.
But it remains to be seen if the state automatically completing the first step in the voting process for them will actually result in them taking the second step on their own. Only 8.2% of eligible voters 18-24 years old actually cast a ballot in 2014. Latinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in California, saw a decline in voting last year, to 15.4%. It was the first drop since 2002, even as registration continued its steady creep higher to 23.4% from 22.2% the year before.
Then again, any changes in the electorate could be short-lived in the face of other sociological and technological changes in society. For instance, what happens to motor voter if driverless cars become the norm?