By Samantha Lachman, The Huffington Post
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill last October that will automatically register voters, which was sent to him by the Democratic-controlled state legislature in September.
Since there are between 6 and 7 million Californians who remain unregistered to vote, voting rights advocates see the measure as a way to save money, boost security and reduce barriers to participation in elections. The state experienced record low turnout for a regularly scheduled general election last November, in which just 42 percent of Californians who were registered voted.
“In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who had sponsored the bill, in a statement.
The way automatic registration works is relatively simple: Eligible citizens are registered to vote when they show up at a Department of Motor Vehicles office to obtain a driver’s license or state ID. The DMV gives the eligible voter a chance to opt out if they prefer not to register.
If the person does not opt out, the DMV electronically transfers their voter registration information to the Secretary of State’s office, rather than making election officials enter data by hand from paper registration forms.
The federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 already requires states to give eligible voters the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for a new or renewed driver’s license.
The law went into place on Jan. 1, 2016, but the DMV said in a statement that it would not send information to the secretary of state until that office “develops regulations, completes a statewide database system and funding is secured to implement this program.”
The regulations, which must be agreed upon between the DMV and the secretary of state, will have to settle basic procedural issues, such as how the “opt-out” question will be phrased and how often the DMV will transmit data.
The statewide voter registration database, Vote-Cal, is on track to be implemented by June 2016, said Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He said he expects funding needs to be minimal, noting that the DMV received money in the current state budget for a technology upgrade.
Resolving the procedural questions will take some time, Padilla acknowledged. “It won’t be in time for the June primary of 2016,” he said. “At the latest, for the 2018 election cycle, I expect millions of new voters on the rolls in the state of California.”
The United States is one of the world’s only developed countries where the onus for registration is on voters. In Canada, the burden is flipped, with the government automatically registering citizens when they come in contact with state agencies.
Oregon became the first state to pass an automatic registration bill in March 2015. That created momentum for the concept among Democrats, who subsequently introduced similar bills in 17 states, the District of Columbia and in Congress.
Defenders of automatic registration argue that the practice is more secure than the current system of collecting paper registration forms and that those who are newly registered aren’t forced to vote.
“Automated voter registration is actually a more secure way of doing things,” said California Secretary of State Padilla in September.
Potential voters “have to demonstrate proof of age, the vast majority of time people are showing a birth certificate or a passport, which also reflects citizenship. That’s arguably more secure than someone checking a box under penalty of perjury,” Padilla said.
While an increasing number of states are moving toward online registration, states controlled by Republicans have also eliminated same-day registration and cut back early voting, citing concerns about voter fraud or costs.
Democrats say such restrictions make it more difficult for students, seniors, minorities and voters with disabilities to participate in elections. Automatic registration is seen as one way to go on the offense on voting rights, rather than remain on defense in states across the country.