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California’s Great Leap Forward on Voter Registration

The California legislature just passed a bill that has the potential to add millions of new voters to the rolls. If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs it into law, the plan would dramatically modernize voter registration in the Golden State by replacing old-fashioned, ink-and-paper cards with a system that automatically registers eligible citizens when they visit the DMV. Automatic registration in the most populous state in the country is a watershed moment in the effort to fix our broken election system: California will be putting the responsibility for ensuring eligible citizens can vote where it should be — on the government, not the individual.

Automatic registration does two very small but transformative things. First, it registers eligible citizens when they interact with government agencies, unless they decide they do not want to be signed up. That is a subtle, but impactful change — the status quo method is to keep people off the rolls unless they take an action to get themselves registered. The second is that government agencies will electronically transfer voter registration information instead of making election officials hand-enter data from paper forms.

Automatic registration is a straightforward solution to a real problem. Our voter rolls are frayed — one in four eligible citizens is not signed up at all, and one in eight registration records is invalid or has serious errors. Automatic registration will increase the accuracy of the voting lists. Digitally sent information introduces fewer errors than when election officials have to decipher voter registration forms and then hand-enter the information. That means fewer Election Day problems, like long lines and disenfranchised voters. And it means more of California’s eligible voters will get on, and stay on, the rolls. Automatic registration will also save the state money. In Arizona, Maricopa County found that processing a paper application costs 83 cents while an electronically transferred and processed application only costs 3 cents.

California is not alone in making this groundbreaking reform. In March, Oregon passed its “New Motor Voter” law, becoming the first state nationwide to adopt automatic voter registration. New Jersey’s legislature passed a similar bill in June that awaits the governor’s signature.

These states have made changes that could catapult their civic participation to new heights. If all three implement their bills, 14 percent of the nation’s population would live in states with automatic registration — that’s a huge achievement in just a few months.

These states are the vanguard of a broader movement: At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have introduced bills that would automatically register citizens. At the national level, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have endorsed automatic, universal registration, and at least two bills have been introduced in Congress — one sponsored by Sanders.

The California Legislature’s decision to push forward is an important advancement of voting rights. Gov. Brown should sign the bill, making automatic registration the law. And other states should follow.

© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice

Sophie Schuit

Sophie Schuit joined the Brennan Center for Justice in June 2014 as a Research and Program Associate in the Democracy Program, where she focuses on voting rights and elections.

Jonathan Brater

Jonathan Brater serves as counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.  His work focuses on voting rights and elections.

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