You can lead citizens to register, but can’t make them vote. Soon, every eligible Californian who passes through a Department of Motor Vehicles office will be registered to vote unless they explicitly decline, the product of legislation intended to reverse a downward spiral of voter participation rates. The effort could add millions of new voters to the rolls, reshaping the electorate and recalibrating how campaigns are conducted. But supporters acknowledge that the law will accomplish little unless those newly registered multitudes actually cast votes. Whether they avail themselves of that right will stand as the true test of Assembly Bill 1461’s ambitious aim of bringing disengaged and disaffected citizens into civic life. “There’s a lot of work left to be done,” said Mindy Romero, a UC Davis professor who studies voter engagement. “These are people who by definition are disconnected from the political process,” and now, “they need to be reached out to and mobilized.”
Cynicism, not inconvenience, was the most common reason for not voting, Californians cited outside a DMV office in Sacramento on a recent morning. Several people weren’t certain whether they were registered or not. Those who said they do not vote had a simple rationale: They don’t believe it will matter.
“Votes are pretty much paid for,” said Laura Young, a 21-year-old barista who thought she may have registered during a previous DMV visit but said she has never voted. Other nonvoters cited an underwhelming presidential field and the effect of the Electoral College.
Such opinions inform critics of AB 1461, who point to the millions of registered Californians who haven’t voted as evidence the problem lies elsewhere.