With the presidential campaign in full swing, political jockeying dominates the airwaves. But while pundits focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, the biggest voting reform in a quarter century is unfolding out west: California’s legislature passed a bill enacting automatic voter registration. Gov. Jerry Brown should sign it and bring 21st century registration to the Golden State.
There are nearly 7 million eligible Californians who are not registered to vote. Automatically signing up voters could make a huge dent in that problem. Here’s how it works: First, eligible citizens are registered to vote when they are at a DMV office, unless they decide they do not want to be signed up. That is a subtle, but impactful change. The current method keeps eligible citizens off the voting rolls unless they take an action to get themselves registered. Second, the DMV will electronically transfer voter registration information instead of making election officials hand-enter data from paper forms.
These two changes may sound small, but it would transform the state’s system by putting the burden of registration where it should be—on the government. This could add millions to the rolls, save money, and boost election security by reducing typos and mistakes.
California is the latest state—and by far the largest—to pass this groundbreaking reform. In March, Oregon passed an automatic registration law that may add hundreds of thousands of new voters to its rolls. Soon after, the New Jersey legislature passed a similar bill (unfortunately, as of now, Gov. Chris Christie has indicated he would veto it). In 2015 alone, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have introduced legislation proposing automatic registration. It has also reached the national level, with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders endorsing the reform. California could advance automatic registration on a grand scale. In fact, if Oregon, New Jersey, and California enact this policy, 16 percent of the nation’s population will live in states with automatic registration.
The country needs it. Our election system is broken in many ways—a common lament in election years—but voter registration is one of its greatest flaws. Fifty million eligible Americans are not registered to vote, and 1 in 8 registrations nationwide have serious errors. Much of the problem stems from our old-fashioned, ink-and-paper system, which leads to incomplete and error-ridden rolls.
Making matters worse, states pushed through a wave of restrictive voting laws in recent years, and the Supreme Court enfeebled a key protection under the Voting Rights Act. The result: Too many Americans experience registration difficulties while also facing greater obstacles to the ballot.
California can take important steps forward with this voting reform bill. To be sure, automatic registration needs safeguards to ensure that only eligible citizens are added, that those who do not wish to participate have that option, and that people registered because of government error are not punished for it. But California, like Oregon before it, can put these checks in place.
In 1992, Governor Brown voiced some prophetic words: “Every citizen in America should have not only the right but the real opportunity to vote. And it’s the responsibility of government to ensure that by registering every American. And that’s why we have to fight to see that government does the job with all its bureaucracy and its computers.”
Today, we have the modern tools and the political will to make that a reality. But first, it will take one more old-fashioned, ink-and-paper transaction: a stroke of Governor Brown’s pen.
Myrna Pérez is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.