Automatic voter registration moving through California legislature

The California Senate passed a bill yesterday that would automatically register every licensed driver in the state to vote unless they opt out, modeling legislation enacted in Oregon and introduced in a host of other states. An earlier version of the bill has already been passed in the state House, which needs to approve minor amendments that were made in the Senate before it proceeds to Governor Jerry Brown’s office for his signature.

Vote by Shutterstock

Vote by Shutterstock

According to the Los Angeles Times, the bill is being pushed as a response to dismal voter turnout in recent elections. Voter turnout last November fell to 42% percent of eligible voters. In a special election in March, turnout was just 10%. Over 7 million eligible Californians are not registered to vote.

California and its localities have thrown around a number of ideas to boost voter turnout. A proposal in Los Angeles to pay citizens who show up to vote was widely panned. Efforts to restore voting rights for ex-felons have been met by voting rights activists with a much more favorable response.

California Republicans — who somehow still exist — opposed the bill with the knee-jerk response that it will increase the risk of voter fraud, with no explanation as to how expanding voter registration through the issuance of a photo ID will lead to suspect votes being cast.

While automatic voter registration via the DMV is the current path of least resistance for voting rights expansions, as it uses the existing bureaucratic infrastructure and carries an opt-out provision, there are better and more comprehensive ways to expand ballot access. California could allow voters to register online — many states already do. They could use other bureaucratic databases to automatically register voters who are not licensed to drive.  They could make Election Day a holiday (or establish a voting week).

There aren’t any good arguments against doing any of these things. So while California’s push to automatically register its drivers to vote is a good first step, it isn’t enough.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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22 Responses to “Automatic voter registration moving through California legislature”

  1. Rick B says:

    Recidivism actually is more related to how ex-prisoners are treated than to any characteristic of the individuals themselves. again, you are treating ex-prisoners as though there was something inherently wrong with them rather than that they were someone who made a mistake. We have made going to prison a life sentence as a second-class individual and the crap about taking away the right to vote is just one more element of that.

  2. LanceThruster says:

    Convenience is a good thing.

  3. rogerclegg says:

    As I said at the outset, I have no objection to felons being re-enfranchised, “but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most
    people who walk out of prison will be walking back in.” Re-enfranchisement could be done at a public ceremony — like a citizen naturalization — where an official congratulated the felon in front of his friends and family on turning his life around. That would be a positive way to reintegrate individuals; automatic reenfranchisement misses this opportunity and will give the vote back to many people who have assuredly not turned over a new leaf.

  4. Rick B says:

    Thank you. As I read that article, it says that the outcome of elections have been changed by modifying who belongs to the electorate. It also says that Republicans get the benefit of (creating new felons and) preventing felons from voting.

    What is excluded from that report is that the election in Florida in 2000 was clearly changed by excluding minority voters, and this was accomplished by sloppy exclusions based on name similarities (which have nothing to do with having committed a felony.) That’s voter-pool manipulation to prevent likely Democrats from voting, not excluding felons.

    The article does not address my assertion that the powers-that-be are creating classes of people who are not allowed to effectively participate in the governance of society. If, once you get the label felon you are excluded from society, why would you expect the people you exclude to act like good members of society? you give them no hope of a better circumstance because you have labeled them as nonredeemable. And it is clear that our “justice” system is designed to control and restrict minorities, not to provide justice to citizens.

  5. Number Six says:

    If you can’t get accountable leadership, why vote for accountable citizenship?

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  8. Rick B says:

    Unfortunately the link you posted cannot be found ( 404 ).

    I disagree with your (implied) assumption that felons are inherently lawbreakers who cannot ever be expected to achieve “…certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws…”. Our society creates the groups of people that supposedly break laws and then go on the assumption that those people are inherently criminal. I would argue that it is not a class of people who are inherently criminal as much as it is a society that demands that a criminal class be created. The remarkably high numbers of Blacks in prison together with the school-to-prison process demonstrates that is what society is doing.

    Also, your statement that there are “…certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws…” is false. The so-called standards are not objective. They are applied differently to different groups of people. The recently reported fact that the White NC police officer who shot the Black man in the back was reported that he did so because he was afraid of his Blackness. Whatever the truth from that officer really is, it is clear that objective standards that are applied equally between White and Black suspects simply do not exist. The actual assumption is that minority suspects are inherently guilty of felonious behavior.

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  10. rogerclegg says:

    Thanks, but: (1) it’s not true that re-enfranchising felons would not change election results, and in fact one famous study by *proponents* of re-enfranchisement documented this (see http://www.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/Uggen_Manza_ASR_02.pdf); and (2) the reason that I support disenfranchisement is less for its rehabilitative effect than because people who aren’t willing to follow the law shouldn’t be making the law for the rest of us; we have certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws that we require before people can be entrusted with a role in the solemn enterprise of self-government, and some people (children, the mentally incompetent, noncitizens, and people who commit serious crimes against their fellow citizens) don’t meet those standards — see link to my congressional testimony above.

  11. Rick B says:

    The penalty for committing a serious crime is in isolating the criminal and limiting his or her freedom. Taking away the right to vote has no rehabilitative effect, and probably just helps the criminal to better identify himself as rightfully excluded from society. In fact, taking away the right to vote signifies that the individual is born bad, and completely unworthy of consideration by or conversation with “their betters.”

  12. Rick B says:

    I see no value in taking away the right to vote even when in prison. There are not enough felons to change elections, and the involvement in social decision-making is probably sufficiently rehabilitative so that involvement in an election would be good for both the felons and for everyone else.

    Society is never benefited by creating and excluding minority groups.

  13. rogerclegg says:

    Thanks, but see my exchange with emjayay below.

  14. Indigo says:

    No. I can’t see it through the lens you’re using. A felon, once released from prison, is a free citizen once again, debt paid. If it happens that they lapse, they’ll be caught and imprisoned once again but, and this is important, we should never set up the circumstances so that we assume they will lapse. Setting them up for failure on purpose is a vicious ploy I can only describe as Inquisitorial.

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  16. Indigo says:

    There are so many things that can be done to increase voter turn out. The bottom line, however, is persuading the many potential voters out there that voting does make a difference. Not much of anybody believes that these days so the corollary is easy to figure out: if my vote doesn’t make a difference, why bother? Anecdotes about how one vote made a difference once upon a time in Missouri don’t carry much weight. Motivation needs to meld itself with accountable citizenship and that’s becoming increasingly difficult to define.

  17. rogerclegg says:

    Thanks, emjayay. But when you think about it, “the paid your debt to society” phrase really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    I mean, it’s not like, when you rob a liquor store, you’re just borrowing something from society the way you borrow money from a bank, and if you go to prison then you’ve paid it back, and we’re all square and nobody can hold it against you. It’s not like society says, “Hey, how about if we make a deal with you, and you can rob a liquor store, but if we catch you, then you have to agree to go to prison. We feel like that’s a good deal for us, getting to lock you up and pay for your room and board, and we’re willing to let you rob a liquor store if you let us do that. Banks like to receive loan payments, and we like to lock people up — it’s worth it to banks to loan money if they get repaid, and it’s worth it to us to let people rob liquor stores so long as we can lock people up.” As I said, this is silly, and so this paid-your-debt-to-society argument really doesn’t make much sense.

    Another way to think about it: There are all kinds of ways in which society doesn’t ignore the fact that someone has committed a serious crime, even though they have “paid their debt” to the extent that they’re allowed to come and go as they please now. We don’t let felons possess firearms, or serve on juries, and a convicted embezzler will have a hard time getting a job at a bank.

  18. emjayay says:

    I kind of thought that by definition you had paid your debt to society by then. Or at least by the time you get off parole.

  19. rogerclegg says:

    Thanks for your reply. While I don’t accept your premises, let’s pretend for the sake of argument that they are all true. It remains the case that the overwhelming majority of people who are convicted of felonies have indeed indeed committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens. (Consider: Less than 1 percent of the people sentenced for drug offenses in federal court in 2014 were sentenced for simple drug possession, and many of those were plea bargains.) So it makes sense, as I said, to re-enfranchise people carefully and on a case-by-case basis, rather than automatically on the day they walk out of prison.

  20. greenman47 says:

    We create felons at an ever-increasing rate to feed the monster of private prisons. We incarcerate non-white folks at a disproportionate rate and have the world’s largest prison population, many, if not most, for minor offenses made more ever onerous by mandatory sentencing. Perhaps not every felon is a bad person deserving of disenfranchisement.

  21. rogerclegg says:

    Re felon voting: If you aren’t willing to follow the law
    yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else,
    which is what you do when you vote. The
    right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a
    case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned
    over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most
    people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website
    here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-challenges-to-felon-disenfranchisement ] and our congressional testimony here: [ http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf
    ].

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