Bucking National Trend, California Making Voting Easier

Bucking National Trend, California Making Voting Easier

California is advancing ways to increase voter participation ahead of the 2018 elections, while dozens of states have gone backwards by imposing new voting restrictions.

Automatic Registration, Vote Centers Should Boost Turnout

California is advancing ways to increase voter participation ahead of the 2018 elections, while dozens of states have gone backwards by imposing new voting restrictions.

The need for reform is glaring; California voter turnout is often abysmal. In 2014, turnout in both the June primary (25%) and the November general election (42%) hit record lows. Voters cited a lack of interest and time constraints as their primary reasons for staying home.

Three recent reforms — online voter registration, automatic voter registration (AVR), and same-day voter registration — have proven very effective in other locales and already have or should boost participation here. A fourth — Vote Centers (VC) — also has the potential to get more Californians to cast ballots.

California implemented online voter registration (OVR) in September 2012. Today, it is one of 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) that offers this option; four additional states will soon join them. Since OVR was implemented, the California Secretary of State’s office has received and processed about 4 million online registration applications. That’s good progress, but the latest figures indicate there are still 6.6 million eligible Californians who are not registered.

In 2016, the state expanded the availability of same-day voter registration in the 14 days leading up to Election day. In addition, California became the second state (after Oregon) to adopt automatic voter registration. Eligible citizens can now register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles without having to fill out a separate form. Oregon has already seen significant registration increases since implementing AVR in January 2016.

While online, same-day, and automatic voter registration have boosted voter turnout wherever they’ve been implemented, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Vote Centers.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Voter’s Choice Act, a new model that enables counties to mail every registered voter a ballot 28 days prior to Election day. The voter can return the completed ballot by mail or deliver it in person to a ballot drop box, or a newly established VC.

Voters will also be able to register, cast their ballots, receive replacement ballots, and access additional services at the Vote Centers. For the 2018 election, 14 of California’s 58 counties will be eligible to opt in to the VC model; the remaining counties are eligible to adopt it in 2020.

While the Vote Centers have the potential to increase voting in California, research by the California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) at UC Davis has shown that a majority of California voters are somewhat skeptical of the electoral change, and were unwilling to travel more than 15 minutes to use a Vote Center.

“While the Vote Center Model has been well received in Colorado, California’s unique demographic and geographic diversity means we need to carefully consider how to adopt this model in a way that best serves California voters and those who could be brought into the electorate in the future,” said CCEP Director Mindy Romero.

CCEP research suggests that “targeted and sustained education efforts will be critical to helping California voters know about, have confidence in, and successfully utilize the new election model.”

But the expansion and promotion of better options for when, where, and how Californians register and cast their ballots is a welcome relief. These reforms should be a boon to voter participation at a time when much of the country is facing the greatest threat to voting rights since the civil rights era.