One Simple Change Could Drastically Improve Voter Turnout In California

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

As soon as this week, the California Senate could pass a bill to address its dismally low voter turnout by making registration automatic for the millions of residents with drivers licenses.

Copying a landmark law passed by Oregon earlier this year, the policy would connect DMV records with voter registration rolls, putting the burden on the voter to opt-out rather than opt-in. According to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, this could help bring the 6.6 million California citizens who are eligible but not registered to vote into the democratic process.

“We have a lot of work to do on the strength of our democracy,” Padilla told ThinkProgress. “We need to focus on the whole pipeline: both getting more currently registered people to cast ballots, and getting more eligible Californians on the voter rolls.”

California’s participation rate in the most recent elections was one of the worst in the country — with just over 42 percent of eligible voters turning out in last fall’s election. In Los Angeles County, just 31 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

The state’s communities of color could particular benefit from the policy change. Currently, only 62.8 percent of Latino and 50.7 percent of Asian-American residents are registered in California. Latinos, who recently surpassed whites to become the largest demographic group in the state, have the lowest participation rate: just 28 percent of them cast ballots in 2014.

As the state senate decides whether to send the bill to the governor’s desk, other groups are pushing for additional measures to make it easier to vote. Some have advocated for mailing every eligible Californian a ballot as Washington, Colorado and Oregon already do, while others have pushed successfully for tens of thousands of former prisoners to have their voting rights restored. The state is also in the process of implementing same-day voter registration, which has boosted turnout rates in other states by 10 to 12 percent.

But because groups like the Public Policy Institute of California still cite voter apathy as a major problem, other Californians are enlisting the help of nerd and pop culture to inspire more people to get invested in the political process.

Enter Politicon, the brainchild of music producer Simon Sidi, which aims to bring together elected officials, campaign strategists, comedians, actors for a multi-day festival this fall.

“Superhero people have ComicCon. Music people have South by Southwest,” Sidi told ThinkProgress. “Politicon is for us, for people who love this subject.”

The non-partisan festival in mid-October aims to attract both political die-hards as well as those who feel voting is a waste of time.

“We don’t want this to be a Netroots or CPAC or the RNC or DNC. This is something very different. We don’t want to dictate what people talk about,” said Sidi. “We live in the mother of modern democracy and everyone has an opinion, but we have such low voter turnout. So something’s not quite right.”

Some of the political veterans planning the conference hope to draw voters into the excitement of the 2016 election, even stereotypically apathetic Californians.

“When I moved out here, I asked, ‘Who’s our congressman? and got, ‘I dunno,” said Jon Macks, a Politicon organizer who has written speeches for and worked on the campaigns of President Obama and several Senate Democrats. “But people get the sense this election really matters and there’s a lot at stake. The next president will name Supreme Court justices. They will decide the future of women’s issues and reproductive rights, what happens Planned Parenthood, and immigration and border policy. Who runs matters.”

As California struggles to get more of its residents to register and turn out to the polls for elections, Politicon hopes to use humor and Hollywood glitz to deliver a serious message.

“The food you eat, the water you drink, the roads you drive on, is determined by an elected official or, sadly, a lobbyist,” Macks told ThinkProgress. “Politics matters. The person or party you may be dismissing has a real influence on your life.”