No sooner had Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a new law automatically making a registered voter of every person who applies for or renews a drivers license in her state than California’s top elections official jumped on the idea.
Alex Padilla, the MIT engineering graduate who once was the Los Angeles city council’s youngest president ever, was up-front about copying Oregon. “While many states are making it more difficult for citizens to vote, our neighbor to the north offers a better path,” Padilla, the California secretary of state, said in a press release days after the Oregon law was signed. “I believe the Oregon model makes sense for California.”
The Oregon law is a significant new twist on the federal “Motor Voter” law in use since 1993. The national law requires all states to offer voter registration opportunities at all Department of Motor Vehicles offices, plus every welfare office and those that deal with the disabled.
But the law is not usually enforced. Example: Most California DMV offices may offer voter registration on request, but they don’t normally inform everyone they serve of this, nor are voter registration materials included in most DMV renewal mailings.
This would be rectified in a California version of the Oregon law, which now takes the form of a bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego.
The Oregon measure will not merely consider every U.S. citizen over 18 who contacts that state’s DMV a registered voter, but will automatically send ballots to all of them in every election.
That’s not precisely the model to be followed here. For one thing, Oregon in recent years has conducted many of its elections purely by mail, while only about half California’s voters participate by mail.
So all the California law would do is add eligible new voters to the rolls. This would see them receiving by mail all voter guides on initiatives and candidates, but no absentee ballots unless they’re requested.
The motives for this change are clear, as are some problems. The California move is spurred in part by pathetic turnouts in municipal elections across the state early this spring. In Los Angeles, for example, less than 10 percent of eligible voters participated. Some city council members, then, were elected by just 4 percent or 5 percent of eligible voters in their districts. So increased voter participation is one motive for this change.
There’s also the fact that everyone involved with this proposed change is a Democrat, and increased turnout historically tends to favor Democrats. New voters, minority group members and youths tend to turn out less than Anglos over 50, who historically are more likely to support Republicans. So there’s a political motive in addition to the good-government one.
Then there are the potential problems: It’s still illegal for non-citizens to vote in California elections, whether they involve local, state or federal offices and issues. Yes, there have been proposals to allow non-citizens to participate in local elections affecting their interests. But that idea has never taken hold, and there’s little likelihood it will anytime soon.
Another potential problem is how the DMV can know whether a drivers license applicant is a citizen. Critics of Motor Voter have long complained that it can let non-citizens onto the voters’ rolls. But the agency will take only birth certificates, passports, drivers licenses from other states and similar official documents as its required proof of identity. So unless an applicant obtains a highly credible forgery, the DMV will be able to screen non-citizens out of voter registration.
Another problem is that some eligible voters never register because they don’t want their addresses, birth dates or party affiliations made available to the public. Others don’t want to be called for jury duty, for which voter registration records are used.
That’s a tougher problem, yet could be resolved by changing some rules about disclosure of personal information on registered voters.
But the bottom line will likely be that this bill, or a modified version, will pass because something has to be done to increase voter turnouts. If this can’t do that, it’s hard to see what might.