Entwining Two Rights in California: Voting and Driving

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For all the early excitement stirred by the presidential primary contests, a greater test of democracy than the candidates’ cut-and-thrust will be voter participation, a vital statistic which dropped from 62.3 percent in 2008 to 57.5 percent in the last presidential election. In part because of a welter of obstructionist state laws, more than 90 million Americans did not bother or care to vote in 2012.

The Democratic-majority Legislature in California, the most populous state, has just taken a major step toward resisting this alarming trend by approving a system of automatic voter registration for any citizen who obtains or updates a California driver’s license. Modeled on Oregon’s excellent “motor-voter” program, the new system cannot help but increase democratic participation.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has long campaigned for fairer access to the ballot for voters shut out by undemocratic restrictions, should sign the measure with pleasure. In like manner, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey should sign the “Democracy Act” passed in June by the New Jersey Legislature establishing a similar motor-voter system. Regrettably, Mr. Christie, preoccupied with his own fading bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has indicated he opposes registering voters automatically via the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission.

NYTMoterVoterBanner-01.pngThe California bill was enacted despite solid opposition by Republicans who echoed the unproven claim that easier registration laws invite voter fraud. What they invite is healthier democracy. In California, an estimated 6.6 million citizens are not registered to vote, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla. Last year, tens of thousands of Californians tried vainly to register on Election Day through his office, too late to vote.

Once enacted and tied into computerized innovations expected by next year, the California system will help replace one of the many Dickensian variations that plague state voter laws — a pen-and-ink card registration system that causes bureaucratic delays and errors. A driver will be free to opt out or change voter registration, although refusing such a ballot blessing would be hard to fathom. While the key remains voters’ individual motivation, many will no longer face an antiquated hurdle to claiming their rights.

The Legislature acted after last year’s midterm elections attracted just 42 percent of eligible California voters, including a depressing 8.2 percent of the much sought after 18-to-24-years olds. Nationally, voter turnout was 36.3 percent for the midterms, the lowest since World War II.

California’s determined effort to get voters to the polls should help galvanize motor-voter measures now pending in more than a dozen other state legislatures.

Originally posted in the New York Times 

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