California low voter turnout

April 27, 2015

The saddest part about having a constitution that guarantees citizens the right to vote is having so few people actually take advantage of that right. This was evident in the 2014 mid-term elections in California, where voter turnout was a paltry 42%, a new low. The problem is an obvious one: more and more people are staying home.

Yes, Barack Obama galvanized a sizeable portion of young voters in 2008, and managed to get some 80% of those eligible to vote out to the polls, but stats like that are limited to elections at the highest level. While the presidential race is certainly the Super Bowl of politics, more often than not it’s what gets done at the state and county level that has the most impact on people’s lives. So in the interest of getting out the local vote, here are a couple solutions officials are proposing.

Automatic registration

No sooner had Oregon Gov. Kate Brown passed the state’s “Motor Votor” law, which automatically registers those with driver’s licenses to vote, California was proposing a similar statute. The idea was suggested by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and would be a veritable carbon copy of the Oregon measure. Officials in Oregon predict that some 300,000 new voters will be added to the rolls in the immediate, with more than double that figure coming in over time. And when taking into account California’s 7 million eligible but unregistered voters, Padilla predicts his state could do even bigger numbers.

However, there are other, less-enthusiastic opinions on the matter. Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota considered a similar bill in 2009 but ended up vetoing it due to the lack of choice inherent in automatic registration. But any worries regarding infringement on civil liberties seem unfounded. The law in no way compels people to get out to the polls; it simply makes the option automatically available.

Same-day registration

Legislation is in the works in Sacramento to get eligible voters out to the polls. This includes same-day registration and even mailing ballots to all registered voters. The latter solution would do away with polling places entirely. Online voter registration was already implemented in the capital two years ago, so these other proposals might just become a reality in the near future.

The simple fact is that the level of civic engagement in California is weak and only getting weaker. If the state’s low voter turnout continues to smash records, then it’s only a matter of time before folks start asking the frightening question, “Why even have elections at all?” So, if Oregon can expand its voter rolls, there’s no reason California can’t produce comparable results. After all, one truth proven throughout history is that more people at the polls doesn’t weaken a democracy—it strengthens it.

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