Alex Padilla is looking beyond the state’s borders for programs that could dramatically change the way Californians vote. Among the ideas that California’s new secretary of state hopes will boost anemic turnout: automatically registering people through the Department of Motor Vehicles and mailing a ballot to every registered voter. “It will take two big steps to tackle the problem,” said Padilla, a former Democratic legislator from the San Fernando Valley who replaced the termed-out Debra Bowen after winning election in November. “First we have to register the estimated 6.7 million Californians who are eligible to vote but not registered,” he said. “Then we need to have them actually cast ballots.” Voting officials across the state agree that something has to be done to get more people to the polls. The 42 percent turnout in November’s general election and the 25 percent for the June primary were both record lows for California.
The spirit and intent of efforts to pump up the number of voters “is to get more people involved in democracy,” Padilla said. The secretary’s registration plan is making its way through the Legislature as AB1461, the California New Motor Voter Act. Since 1993, the national Motor Voter Act has required the DMV and other state agencies to provide a way for eligible citizens to register to vote.
Padilla’s plan, cribbed from a law passed in Oregon this year, would use information collected by the DMV when Californians apply for or renew a driver’s license to automatically register eligible residents, who wouldn’t have to do anything but indicate a party preference. People would have to opt out if they didn’t want to be registered.
“We know there are some people who don’t want to register, and they have a First Amendment right not to register,” Padilla said. “But let them jump through the hoops and make it easier for others to register.”