Golden Opportunity From the Golden State

It took cajoling for California to take a healthy step forward to help more people register to vote. It will take a chorus of community voices, now and in the weeks to come, to maximize the grassroots response and maintain the momentum.
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Enrollment of more than 7 million Americans in health insurance isn't the only recent milestone for the Affordable Care Act. Beginning this month, following sustained legal pressure, the state of California will conduct what may be the largest voter-registration mailing in U.S. history. It will reach more than 4 million eligible voters in the state who sought coverage under the landmark law.

The mailing is a hard-won investment in democracy and a healthy step for California. But imagine if recipients toss it in the trash. The mailing will only realize its main purpose if community leaders throughout the state call attention to its arrival and give voice to the spirit that made it happen. The message? Open the letter. Get registered. Take the opportunity to become a voter and urge everyone else in your household to register.

This month the Supreme Court's ruling in the McCutcheon case removed overall limits on donors' campaign contributions per two-year election cycle. It threatens to make elections and the policy process even more a rich man's game.

Against this backdrop, the mailing is evidence that toeholds still exist in the law for demanding that government invite the 99 percent into the democratic process. If reinforced with other alerts, this outreach in their preferred language to millions of predominantly low to moderate income Californians who sought insurance under the ACA, including new citizens, students, seniors, and people with disabilities, could alter the calculus of state elections and change the game. That goes for the Golden State and some other states that might follow California's lead.

The massive mailing stems from a settlement by the state with voting-rights groups, including the ACLU. They had insisted that California's well-coordinated effort to offer health insurance to legal residents through the health marketplace established by the landmark 2010 federal law qualified as a public benefit. That in turn triggered the requirement to offer voter registration under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, or "motor voter" law, signed by President Clinton after being vetoed by his predecessor, George Bush Sr. The law earned its nickname for placing voter-registration forms at driver's license counters in state motor vehicles agencies.

California is home to more than 24 million adults who are eligible to vote, but 6.5 million of this total, or about 27 percent, are not registered. That figure comes from the year-end 2013 report by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who signed the settlement agreement with voting-rights advocates that commits the state to remedying its past failure to register voters through its Covered California campaign with the current mega-mailing. It's possible that up to half of its recipients, or 2 million people, may not be registered to vote. If just twenty percent of this segment, or 400,000 Californians, actually use the form to register, it could push total state voter registration over the 18 million mark.

That simply underscores the need for the mailing to succeed, and for a larger public information push by civic leaders and local service providers to urge Californians to use the form and sound a drumbeat for registration. The form is also available free online in 10 languages.

The mega-mailing dramatizes the opportunity for voter sign-ups in places where the registration gap is widest and for civic forces to mount a sustained drive. In San Bernardino County, for instance, just 67 percent of eligible voters are registered, compared with 73 percent statewide. In Riverside, registration is even lower, at 63 percent. These two counties have the lowest registration levels of any large counties in the state. Taken together, they are home to nearly 1 million eligible voters who aren't registered. And over the past decade they have led the state in total population growth, showing today the future of its electorate.

California's outreach to those who inquired about insurance enrollment sets a precedent. It is the only one of the 16 states operating its own healthcare marketplace to act on its obligation to provide voter registration. States such as Nevada and Hawaii can and should follow suit. U.S. Census estimates from 2013 indicate their registration levels trail California's.

There is a thrill to registering new voters, teen or elderly, immigrant or native-born, that connects to the deepest themes of our democracy. But rulings like Citizens United from 2010 and McCutcheon this month that guarantee industries and billionaires seats at the front table in the forum we call the democratic process, with a strong hand on the microphone, the ballot box, and the gavel of governance, risk dulling the civic impulse. Wealthy interests' dominance of elections and policy-making corrupts our system and can warp desire to engage into cynicism and apathy. Still, in America, every vote is equal. And power goes to those who participate.

It took cajoling for California to take a healthy step forward to help more people register to vote. It will take a chorus of community voices, now and in the weeks to come, to maximize the grassroots response and maintain the momentum.

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