On Saturday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow the state to automatically register millions of residents to vote, using their DMV records.
Starting in 2016, every eligible California citizen who goes to a DMV office to get a driver’s license or renew one will be instantly registered to vote, unless he or she chooses to opt out.
“Citizens are currently forced to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote through registration,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who wrote the bill and pushed for its passage. “We do not have to opt-in to other rights. We do not have to opt-in to free speech or due process. The right to vote should be no different.”
In an interview earlier this year, Padilla told ThinkProgress the new law could help bring the 6.6 million California citizens who are eligible but not registered to vote into the democratic process.
Padilla’s office reported that on Election Day last year, more than 40,000 people logged on to the Secretary of State website trying to register to vote. “Unfortunately it was too late,” he said.
The new “motor voter” law is just one of several steps aimed at addressing California’s dismally low election participation rate — one of the worst in the nation. Just over 42 percent of eligible voters turned out in last fall’s election. In Los Angeles County, just 31 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.
Automatic registration is expected to particularly benefit voters of color. 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.
Cristóbal Alex, the president of the non-partisan group Latino Victory Project, wrote an op-ed that the new law “comes at a time when our voices are not being heard.”
“As we’ve seen, our country is at a crossroads, and the next election will present us with a choice between old-fashioned anti-immigrant bigotry and an opportunity to make this country more inclusive,” he wrote. “Imagine what would happen if we passed this law, registering 4 million California Latinos to vote in one fell swoop. That’s enough to dramatically change the landscape of the next election, forcing candidates to focus on issues that affect the Latino community.”