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California Becomes 2nd State To Automatically Register Voters

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the state's  "motor voter" law in hopes of boosting turnout in future elections. The state had 42 percent turnout in the 2014 midterms, a record low.
Ringo H.W. Chiu
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the state's "motor voter" law in hopes of boosting turnout in future elections. The state had 42 percent turnout in the 2014 midterms, a record low.

In a move lawmakers hope will drive more Californians to the polls, Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation that automatically registers citizens to vote when they obtain or renew driver's licenses or state identification cards.

The measure, known as the "New Motor Voter Act," was signed into law Saturday. California joins Oregon as the second state in the nation opting to register voters through its department of motor vehicles. Oregon passed its law in March.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement the law will "make voter registration seamless" and will amount to "the largest voter registration drive in the nation's history." He added:

"In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental. ... The New Motor Voter Act will make our democracy stronger by removing a key barrier to voting for millions of California citizens. ...

"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."

Padilla notes voters retain the right to opt out, cancel or change party affiliation at any time. His office also said an estimated 6.6 million Californians are eligible to vote but are not registered.

Emily Rusch, the executive director of the advocacy group California Public Interest Research Group, hopes the new law changes those figures.

"Our democracy is absolutely dependent on the participation of all our eligible citizens. But right now we see that far too many Californians aren't even registered to vote, so they're not even getting information about the election," Rusch said.

California is also coming off a dismal showing during last year's midterm elections, which had a record-low turnout of 42 percent.

Rusch thinks the new motor voter law is likely to have the greatest impact on young millennials. She said only 52 percent of the state's residents ages 18 to 24 were registered to vote before the midterm election.

"That means that nearly over half of eligible youth are just being left out entirely of the process," Rusch said.

"Certainly we will still need to do outreach and education. Young people move around a lot. And so we'll need to make sure they're updating their voter registration as they move around and they have adequate information about the elections that they feel confident voting on a ballot," Rusch added.

Most of the Republicans in the California Legislature opposed the measure. And nationally, many conservative groups say these laws make state voter rolls more vulnerable to fraud.

Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said just because the state automatically registers people does not necessarily mean they will decide to vote in elections.

He says if people want to participate they will do it on their own. Von Spakovsky adds the law puts citizens in a tough position if they want to be removed from the state's automatic voter registration.

"If you want to get out of the system you've got to take the step of going and telling the government you don't want to do it," he said. "I think most Americans ... will tell you they don't like that idea."

California's new law is scheduled to go into effect in January. But the automatic registration won't be offered until work is finished on a statewide database, which may not be complete until summer of 2016.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker
Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.