As California struggles to address historic low voter turnout, new Secretary of State Alex Padilla sees promise in a new Motor Voter law signed into law last week by Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
“While many states are making it more difficult for citizens to vote, our neighbor to the north offers a better path,” said Secretary Padilla, California’s chief elections official. “I believe the Oregon model makes sense for California.
“One of the biggest barriers to citizen participation is the voter registration process. A new, enhanced Motor Voter law would strengthen our democracy. It would be a game changer,” said Secretary Padilla. “While Oregon could expand its voter rolls by as much as 300,000 voters through their new enhanced Motor Voter process, California could expand its rolls by millions.”
“There are nearly seven million eligible but unregistered California voters.” Padilla said. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Performance Index, California ranked 38th in voter registration in 2012.
“This change may not happen overnight, but if we are serious about increasing voter turnout, we should follow Oregon’s lead and commit ourselves to registering as many California citizens as possible,” Padilla said.
The new Oregon law will register citizens to vote or update their registration when they get or renew a driver’s license. “For all those citizens who want to exercise their voting rights, we should make every effort to facilitate their participation,” Padilla added.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that Oregon estimates the new law will add 300,000 new voters to its rolls. There are currently nearly 900,000 more drivers than registered voters, however not all are eligible and some can still opt out.
That would make Oregon the second highest state in terms of voter registration – passing Alabama but remaining behind Maine’s 94.99 percent registration which is even higher than Australia ‒ which has compulsive voter laws.
In 1998, Oregon became the first state to adopt vote-by-mail elections. Last November, when most states had scant participation, Oregon was among just six states to surpass 50 percent turnout.
The Associated Press noted that those states ‒ Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon ‒ have over the past six years been the top performers.
The AP reported, “The states with consistently high turnout tend to make it easy to cast ballots. Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin allow voters to register on Election Day. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state hold elections exclusively by mail.”
Oregon, however, topped them all with nearly 70 percent turnout in a midterm election.
California, in the meantime, in 2014 shattered its previous low in November with just 42.2 percent, which obliterated its previous midterm low of 50.6 percent in 2002.
Experts were mixed as to whether this was just a down year with a lack of a contested major statewide election for governor or senator, and the lack of truly compelling statewide initiatives, or whether it was the quickening of a downward trend.
It is not for lack of effort. In 2012, then Senator Alex Padilla and Governor Brown pushed through SB 34, which enabled voters to register to vote through the Affordable Care Act, ostensibly opening the door for millions of Californians to be offered the opportunity to register to vote.
“With the Governor’s signature, California becomes the first state in the nation to offer voter registration through implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” said Senator Padilla back in 2012. “This continues our commitment to maximizing voter registration and participation. Last week, California launched a new on-line voter registration system and more than 20,000 Californians registered to vote in the first 24 hours alone. With SB 35, we further expand voter registration opportunities that will increase participation and strengthen our democracy.”
That marked the third major voting access bill signed in 2012. Other legislation allowed Californians to register to vote online and on Election Day.
However, those initiatives did little to encourage voting in 2014.
Secretary Padilla clearly hopes that a new motor voter bill will increase participation. California may want to look at all-mail ballot elections, as well.
But some of the reports indicate it is not just access but the culture of the state that is driving voter turnout, and that may be too much to expect to change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting