California Governor Jerry Brown has signed legislation that will allow for automated voter registration at the DMV for citizens obtaining or renewing a driver’s license or state ID. The law is being referred to as the New Motor Voter Act. California lawmakers are attempting to combat historically low voter turnout rates in the state by removing barriers to registration. The law will go into effect on the first of 2016, but it may not be immediately implementable. The goal is to have the system functional by the June 2016 primaries.
Although not a perfect solution to the problem of passive, non-voting citizens, the law is a good tool for encouraging citizens to become involved with the process. Specifically, for young citizens who may not have much personal interaction with the government before they seek to obtain their driver’s licenses, automated voter registration provides an easy way to get them thinking about participating in the political system. While registration has the obvious benefit of making someone eligible to vote, it also ensures that the registered person will receive election materials. In theory, a person with more access to knowledge about any given election will be more informed and more likely to participate in that election. Many young citizens express apathy towards a seemingly corrupt system. Those feelings of helplessness may cause young potential voters to avoid the entire process in a way that they might not if they were given an easy way to participate and the information they need to understand the political process.
Conservative California groups have been critical of the legislation, as they fear it will increase opportunities for voter fraud. The main concern is that because California allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, those noncitizens will be able to register to vote under the New Motor Voter Act. These opponents of the legislation argue that by lowering the barriers to registration the state will be harming the integrity of its elections.
These criticisms are unfounded because while the new system makes it easier for citizens to register while they are already at the DMV, it is not such an automatic process that anyone who gets a driver’s license is also registered to vote. Someone seeking to obtain a driver’s license or state ID will be asked to affirm their eligibility to vote; the potential registrant’s information will then be sent electronically to the secretary of state’s office for verification of citizenship before an individual is registered. Although undocumented immigrants are eligible for driver’s licenses in California, the process for receiving a license is not exactly the same as for a citizen, and the license is for driving privileges only and states so clearly on the card. Since undocumented immigrants have to provide different paperwork when applying for a license, it is very obvious that they are not citizens, and they will not be offered the opportunity to register to vote.
Another criticism offered is the idea that the law could lead to people being registered who specifically do not want to be on the voter rolls. Conservative groups argue that a citizen should not have to take an extra step to unregister. This argument also does not get very far because California’s law asks potential registrants if they would like to opt-out before their information is even sent for verification. There is no extra step. This is in contrast to a similar automated registration law in Oregon where citizens are automatically registered and then can later unregister themselves. Here, Californians have the right to make the decision while they are at the DMV.
While critics are worried about the “extra step” required for opting out, Secretary of State Alex Padilla makes the counter argument, “Citizens should not be required to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote. We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech or due process. The right to vote should be no different.” California is making it easier for eligible voters, specifically its young population, to become involved in the electoral process.