California Looks To Take A Page From Oregon’s Voter Turnout Playbook

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Just a week after Oregon became the first state in the nation to automatically register residents to vote using DMV records, California announced it may follow suit.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said this week that he was inspired by Oregon’s landmark law, which automatically registers every eligible resident who goes to a DMV to get a license or renew one, with the option to opt out.

“While many states are making it more difficult for citizens to vote, our neighbor to the north offers a better path,” he wrote. “One of the biggest barriers to citizen participation is the voter registration process. A new, enhanced Motor Voter law would strengthen our democracy. It would be a game changer.”

One early supporter is California Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), who told ThinkProgress, “Any measure that would make it easier for American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote is a good thing for our democracy. We need to ensure that the viewpoints and values of all Americans are represented in government.”

While Oregon’s law is expected to reach 300,000 eligible residents right away, and nearly 900,000 eventually, such a move in California could sweep millions into the political process. Padilla’s proposal could help the nearly 7 million eligible but unregistered voters in the state, many of them low-income, people of color, and younger Californians — whose participation rates are in the single digits.

“In California, an 18- or 19-year-old was more likely to be arrested than actually vote in one of the statewide elections,” California data analyst David Mitchell told KQED.

Overall, California has one of the worst rates of election participation 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.

Those who do vote tend to be much higher income, older and whiter than the state’s population. Latinos, who recently surpassed Caucasians to become the largest demographic in the state, have the lowest participation rate of 28 percent.

Sergio Lara, who works for the non-partisan voter outreach group Mi Familia Vota in California, told ThinkProgress anything that gets many more Latino voters registered would create a political revolution in the state.  “Our politicians would become more representative of people who live in our communities,” he said. “It would open up the doors to get more people in office who are diverse, not just racially but in terms of gender and people from different walks of life. We could see more diversity in ideas on immigration and education. It would just expand our democracy.”

The Golden State is weighing several other ways to address this disparity, including implementing same-day registration — which studies show boosts voter turnout by 12 percent. Other legislation currently in the works would allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, meaning votes could continue to trickle in up to the weekend after the election. Another bill introduced last month would allow the state to put electronic signs on highways — where Californians spend a great deal of time — reminding people to register and vote.

Lara says such education and outreach efforts are critical to breaking down the barriers big and small that create low voter turnout in his community.

“When we go door to door in the community, people ask, ‘Vote for what? Vote for who?’” he said. “It could be that the community doesn’t understand the messages. It may be the case that they walk up to the polls thinking that they’re registered and get turned away. They may have recently moved or changed their name, if they got married, and were not able to re-register. Sometimes changes in poll locations are an issue. But the biggest thing we hope to change, over time, is creating more of a cultural tradition for families to go out to the polls on Election Day.”

If the automatic voter registration model continues to spread — possibly to Vermont and beyond — it could radically boost the participation rate of Latinos and other historically marginalized groups. A report last year found, for example, that reaching 60 percent of unregistered voters of color in southern ‘Black Belt’ states would “upset the balance of power” in Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Not only could this flip control of those statehouses and drastically change the kinds of laws passed there, it could determine the outcome of future presidential elections.