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California Makes Voting Easier, but Not for Today's Elections

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 03, 2015 11:51 AM

Happy Election Day, California! Sure, there are no federal or state-wide elections, but today at least a few California voters will go to the ballot to decide 61 local measures, from drastically limiting Airbnb in San Francisco to funding Las Virgenes Unified School District in Los Angeles and Ventura. Speaking of schools, 102 school board seats across 38 districts are up for a vote today.

But forget what's on the ballot. What's most interesting about this election is the changes to state voting laws that will soon come after it and whether those changes will get anyone to the ballot.

The Missing Under-65 Vote

The Golden State wants people to vote. Desperately. California makes it incredibly easy for most people to register and vote. The state permits online voter registration, early voting, and vote-by-mail absentee voting for anyone who wants it. Identification is only needed the first time you vote at the polls and only if you registered without a photo ID. In some places, you can even vote from jail.

Still, democratic participation in the state lags. Barely 30 percent of eligible Californians voted in last year's elections. Those who did vote tended to be wealthier, whiter, and way older than the average Californian. In fact, with just 8.2 percent of eligible 18-24 year old voters, "the average voter was older than the average Californian's parents," according to Paul Mitchell, a political data expert. NPR declared the elections "the Year of the Grandparents."

Same Day and Automatic Registration

Seeking to turn around those dismal results, but unwilling to actually force anyone to vote, California has decided to make registration even easier. In mid-October, Governor Jerry Brown signed into legislation a new "motor voter" law that will make it easier for eligible voters to participate in elections. Every eligible voter who gets a California drivers license will automatically be registered to vote, unless they opt out. The goal is to get some of the 6 million eligible but unregistered voters on the rolls.

That law came on the heels of a 2012 bill allowing same-day voter registration. Starting in 2016, those who aren't registered through the DMV will be able to register and vote on Election Day. However, that law isn't as strong as other states'. Same-day voters will only get a provisional ballot that can be counted only after their eligibility has been verified.

Of course, not everyone is a fan of California's liberalized voting requirements. Since California allows non-U.S. citizens to register for drivers licenses, some conservative pundits have claimed that the new motor voter provisions will "flood the polls with noncitizens." However, those worries seem unjustified. The new registration rules allow for automatic registration of eligible voters only. Under the new rolls, the state is no more likely to register ineligible noncitizens than it is 16-year-olds.

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