Democracy in California just took a huge leap forward. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed our state’s new “Motor Voter Program,” a law that could put millions of unregistered Californians onto the voter rolls. Co-authored by Democratic Assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez, Luis Alejo and Kevin McCarty, and championed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the “California Motor Voter Program” requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to electronically enroll residents with a driver’s license or state identification card once they have been identified as eligible to vote. Eligible Californians have the choice to opt out of being registered during a specific period of time. California joins Oregon as the second state in the nation to adopt a “motor voter” program.
Unlike Oregon’s law, however, California’s “motor voter” program is not a true automatic voter registration system, since residents still must confirm to the DMV eligibility and they have the option to opt out. And neither state’s program is true universal automatic voter registration, where the government registers every citizen at birth and the right to vote is activated at 18 (no having to interact with a specific agency) – something other advanced democracies already do. Still, with ―motor voter‖ and our already-in-place online registration system, California is streamlining the way we vote by minimizing the need for filling out a paper form and saving money (and trees!) at the same time.
Gov. Brown also recently signed into law bills expanding same-day registration to the days leading up to Election Day, requiring most municipalities to align their local elections to coincide with state and federal elections in even-numbered years, and allowing legal permanent residents who are 16 and 17 years of age to serve as poll workers. All of these reforms aim to increase voter turnout, thereby strengthening democracy in California. And the more people participate in the political process, the more equitably resources are shared and all our rights are better protected.
Unfortunately, in other states dominated by Republican legislatures, voting rights are being quickly rolled back through restrictive voter identification laws, cut backs to early voting, and curtailing voter registration efforts. This is anti-democratic behavior. But then, that’s the point: to keep disfavored groups (the poor, people of color) from accessing the benefits of citizenship. Decades ago, California was a right-wing state — birthplace of the anti-tax movement, aggressive, ―tough on crime‖ measures, and anti- immigrant sentiment. But demographic changes have rendered those attitudes far less popular. We’re undoing the damage done by the reactionaries in the past. With millions more Californians soon to be added to the voter rolls, the changes could be even more dramatic.