Will Jerry Brown Sign Bill Automatically Registering 7 Million Californians to Vote?

Election '16

Every presidential election, voters are told their future is threatened—to get people to vote. In 2016, there may be some truth to that cliché, as the next president will likely appoint new U.S. Supreme Court justices who will linger for decades.

But below that imperative to vote hangs an ugly truth. The electronic machines that most Americans will be using in 2016 are old and increasingly unreliable. That means it is necessary for winners to not just get 50 percent plus one vote, but win by much bigger margins so as the Election Night dust settles, there won’t be weeks of bitter recount fights.

This reality is known by political insiders. It’s the main factor behind the right’s push for every imaginable flavor of voter suppression—stricter voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and so on. And on the left, it’s a factor behind the push to reverse those draconian laws and make voting easier—starting with the registration process.

The latest twist in the voter registration story is some states are setting up systems to automatically register voters when people get a driver’s license. Oregon was first, and now Californians are waiting to see if Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will sign a bill establishing that system. He has until Sunday to sign the bill. (New Jersey's legislature passed a similar measure, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has pledged to veto it.) 

“There are nearly 7 million eligible Californians who are not registered to vote,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, wrote this week in an e-mail urging Californians to lobby Brown. “Automatically signing up voters could make a huge dent in that problem.”

(Editor's note: On Saturday, Oct. 10, Brown signed the bill into law)

He explained there are two major differences with this approach from the status quo.

“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,” Waldman said. “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 together they 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.”

The Brennan Center want California to adopt universal registration, because it will make it harder for other states not to follow.

“In 2015 alone, at least 17 states plus the District of Columbia have introduced legislation proposing automatic registration,” Waldman said. “It has also reached the national level: presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have endorsed the reform, and Senator Elizabeth Warren has also weighed in in favor of automatic registration.”

Waldman calls it “the logical next step.” But there are other steps that steadily have been undertaken in recent years to make it easier to register. For example, as of October 1, 25 states and the District of Columbia offer online registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another path-breaking project adding voters to the rolls is the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC, created by The Pew Charitable Trusts. ERIC, which is in 13 states and Washington, D.C., crunches data from various government databases to identify all of that jurisdiction’s eligible voters and their latest information. The states then contact these individuals, who will find that their voter applications are filled out and awaiting their signature so they can be officially filed.

While ERIC stops just short of the finish line, if you will, it is appealing to red states that want to see some effort from the would-be voter. Automatic registration crosses the finish line, which obviouslty goes further, which makes what happens in California significant.

“Gov. Jerry Brown has until this Sunday to sign into law the biggest affirmative voting reform since 1993,” Waldman said, referring the year the federal government told a range of government agencies—but mostly motor vehicle agencies—to offer voter registration. In 2015, “California’s legislature passed automatic voter registration at DMVs—a law that could transform California’s voting landscape and spur further reform around the country.”

While it remains to be seen what Brown will do, the larger point is that regardless of the path to the polls in 2016, every vote is going to matter. That’s because of the country’s aging vote-counting machinery, which could lose computer files with batches of votes. Winners are going to need margins to remain victorious until the counting is over.  

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