New Motor Voter: A Step Forward for California and Democracy

In a democratic system, no right is more fundamental or necessary than the right to vote. So why are citizens required to opt-in to exercise their right to vote through voter registration?
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Voting is at the core of a free society. It is an opportunity to make our voices heard and influence the direction of our state and our nation. In a democracy, each of us is a steward of our democratic process. It's our responsibility to make registration and voting accessible and convenient for every citizen. Every vote should be counted and every ballot accounted for. The greater confidence the public has in our elections, the more likely they are to participate. That's good for democracy.

Last year, voter participation slipped to historic lows in California and across the country. The dramatic downturn requires that we take action and do more to engage the public. California's New Motor Voter Act gives us the chance to increase voter registration and increase voter turnout in California. It also promises to be a stark contrast to those states that have sought to impede and undermine voter access.

It's estimated that more than 6 million citizens in California are not registered to vote. Thirty-one states don't even have a population of 6 million people. Yet, here in California we have more than 6 million who are not registered. In San Diego County there are nearly 600,000 people eligible, but unregistered, to vote. And, like the unregistered elsewhere in the state, these citizens are predominantly young, Latino, and Asian American.

The UC Davis Center for Regional Change recently examined the plunge in California voter participation, finding that just 17% of eligible Latinos and 18% of eligible Asian Americans voted in the 2014 general election. Even worse, Latinos made up only 15% of California's 2014 vote despite being 39% of our population. Asian Americans made up only 7% of the state's vote in 2014 but were 13% of the population.

In every county in our state, Latino and Asian American registration rates lag significantly behind the general population. The Latino registration rate was over 10 percentage points lower, while Asian Americans were more than 20 percent points lower. Only half of the eligible Asian American citizen population is registered to vote.

Latinos and Asian Americans already make up more than half of California's population. This is not a snapshot in time, it is an enduring trend. Those who are least likely to register and vote, and least likely to be heard by government, have the most to lose by not being registered and voting.

This disconnect is a fundamental problem that we have a responsibility to fix. The health of our democracy depends on it. Improving voter registration is the key first step to improving California's voter turnout rates. That's why together we introduced and earned legislative approval for the California New Motor Voter Act. It is now on Governor Brown's desk for his consideration.

If signed by the Governor, the New Motor Voter Act would automatically register eligible citizens who provide the necessary information to the DMV in the course of handling their normal business. They would have the opportunity to choose a political party or opt out of being registered. The process would be quick and easy.

Making this simple change would help register millions of California citizens and remove a key barrier to voter turnout. It is surprising it has taken this long. In a democratic system, no right is more fundamental or necessary than the right to vote. So why are citizens required to opt-in to exercise their right to vote through voter registration? We don't have to register in order to exercise our right to free speech, or due process, or any number of other rights, yet for some reason our government has balked at its responsibility to register citizens and allow them to vote. We can do better.

Our nation's history is the story of expanding voter rights and removing impediments to voting. We ensured that all races and all genders have the right to vote. We outlawed the poll tax, and passed the Voting Rights Act to prohibit arbitrary tests and barriers to voting. We lowered the voting age to 18 so those who fight in our wars have a say in electing the leaders who send them into battle.

With the Governor's support California can become a national leader in making voter registration a more modern, efficient process. We will be charting a new way forward and creating a voting system that places the onus on government, not the citizen. It would likely result in the single largest sustained voter registration drive in our nation's history. Our democracy requires it now more than ever.

Lorena Gonzalez is a California State Assemblywoman and the author of Assembly Bill 1461.

Alex Padilla is the California Secretary of State and the sponsor of Assembly Bill 1461.

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