By: Tyler Sherman

With low voter turnout in the recent 2014 elections, pressure mounted on California legislators to act to increase voter participation. In response, California’s state legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown approved, the New Motor Voter Act. In essence, the law will automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they use Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) services, such as obtaining a driver’s license. Slated to go into effect in July of 2017, the law has the potential to dramatically alter the Golden State’s future.

At face value, the Act could add 7.4 million people to California’s immense electorate of over 17 million people, a comforting prospect for a State combating voter turnout that fell to a record low of 42% in 2014. The potential of bolstering the voter rolls by over two million voters per year has enjoyed notable support, with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla being a particularly vocal advocate.

“Citizens should not be required to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote,” Padilla said in a press release. “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.”

More than simply increasing the number of voters, though, a report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) indicates that the Act could make California’s voter population more representative of the state’s entire population. Using census and historical DMV statistics, PPIC estimated that representation could become substantially more accurate. When the demographics of California’s eligible but unregistered population are accounted for, it is largely underrepresented populations who would be brought into the fold. For instance, California’s Latino community comprises approximately 35% of adults, but only 24% of the current electorate. Because Latinos make up 28% of potential new voters under the Act, underrepresentation could be reduced from over 10% to closer to 7%. At maximum effect, then, the law could dramatically shift electoral margins. In all, PPIC indicates that registering currently unregistered voters could leave California with an electorate considerably more diverse, younger, poorer, and less educated. Nonetheless the question remains: will the Act actually ameliorate poor voter turnout?

There are limitations to the Act’s potential. Firstly, the law is linked to how many eligible citizens actually use DMV services. Nearly all eligible residents ultimately obtain a driver’s license, so the first limitation is not the most important. Second is the process of “automatic” registration. When potential registrants use DMV services, they’ll be asked to confirm their eligibility to vote and then given the choice of opting out before being registered. Considering that many unregistered voters may feel disengaged from politics in the first place and come from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is reasonable to conclude that many individuals will not be inclined to register or vote even if they do decide to register.

Constraints on the Act’s success do not stop at the registration front, however, and for attorneys on the ground, such as Kevin Shenkman, that’s where the real problem is. Shenkman is notable for successfully suing the city of Palmdale under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Under Palmdale’s at-large districting system, African-Americans made up 75% of the population, but the entire city council, except for one Latino member, was white. Shenkman won a $4.5 million settlement that required Palmdale to switch to a district-based system.

“Motor Voter is a step in the right direction,” said Shenkman. “But I don’t think it’s going to have a huge effect. What’s important is not how many are registered, but how many turn out.”

Shenkman doesn’t see the Motor Voter Act as addressing the actual problem. Although increased registration is a positive thing, the actual problem lies with historical norms and practices of elections. Speaking of historic racial disenfranchisement and using California’s Latino community as a point of reference, Shenkman surmised that different changes are needed.

“There are a number of structural things that ought to be changed,” said Shenkman. “Voter participation is determined by how people feel their vote works—whether they think their vote can make a difference—at some point, after [repeatedly] turning out to vote and not winning, a rational person says its futile.”

If Palmdale was any example, disenfranchisement along racial lines is still present, and Shenkman is unabashed in his opinion that such remnants of historic vote dilution heavily contribute to low voter turnout.

Shenkman contends that, “California is somewhat ahead of other states in that some state and congressional districts are drawn by an independent commission, taking it out of the hands of those running for office, but […] even if you have a district based system, it can still be geared to create the same effect as racial gerrymandering.”

The Motor Voter Act, for Shenkman, simply doesn’t address the base reasons behind poor voter turnout or the norms that have been established by historic dilution of minority voting power. Looking to other countries, such as Australia, Shenkman posited compulsory voting as an instance of an election practice that establishes a national norm of participation. Some other countries, Shenkman pointed out, have over 90% participation.

For the moment, it’s not clear what effect the Motor Voter Act will have. Certainly, the potential for increased participation and representation is there. But, taking into account constraints such as the fact that registration is far from actually casting a ballot, as well as voter apathy via historic disenfranchisement, it seems that California has a long way to go. If skeptical attorneys like Shenkman are correct, more direct changes are required. Thus, if the idea is to increase voter participation, and not just voter registration, the answer may lie elsewhere.

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