SD Union-Tribune Commentary: Why changing California’s motor voter law hurts disenfranchised


Nothing is more important to our democracy than electoral participation by our citizenry. People have to vote.

Yet there have always been artificial barriers to voting. Often these barriers are intentionally created to keep groups of folks — women, people of color, poor citizens — from having equal access to the ballot. Some obstacles are in place without much thought to the obstacles, but they leave many people disenfranchised, nonetheless.

How do we get more people to vote? By breaking down all of these possible barriers, including the way citizens register to vote.

How is voter registration a barrier? Imagine a working mom who is an unregistered citizen. She is juggling three kids, a job that requires her to work 60 hours a week, and all her free time is taken by running her kids around and keeping her household together. She doesn’t think about politics until the weekend before the election when she takes a breath and realizes we are about to elect a new president. She wants to vote, but realizes she is too late to register. She would have to go to the county registrar, wait in a line of hundreds between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day, a workday, with her kids in tow to conditionally register and cast a ballot. For that single mom, registration itself is a barrier. Being automatically registered makes casting a vote on Election Day much easier.

We actually live in one of the few democratic countries that place the burden of registering to vote on individual citizens.

In 1993, Congress passed the “motor voter” law to bring convenient voter registration directly to the public when we apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license. Most Republicans objected.

The first lawsuit against the federal government over the motor moter law was filed by none other than California Gov. Pete Wilson. The legacy of Gov. Wilson’s politically motivated effort to disenfranchise our most marginalized communities made California the sixth worst state in the country at getting voters registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In 2015, I authored the New Motor Voter Act to help remedy this inequity and make registering to vote automatic when a citizen updates any of their information at their local DMV.

In 2017, before New Motor Voter went into effect, the ACLU sued California over our failing voter registration program. My bill served as a way to settle that lawsuit.

New Motor Voter has not only fixed the legal liability of our previous program, it is also doing exactly what it was intended to do: register more voters. In less than a year, we have grown our voter rolls by a million new voters, all citizens who had never been previously registered.

Since we passed our law, 12 more states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar automatic registration laws that change the traditional opt-in registration methods into opt-out plans. Congress just passed a federal automatic registration bill, as well.

And we see the success. The largest share of California’s eligible voting population was registered for the 2018 midterms since the 1996 presidential election — a total of 19 million people were on the voting rolls.

Republican lawmakers are reverting to their old playbook by calling for a repeal of this monumental law in an effort to remove the threat of a diverse population of voters.

Yes, the implementation of California’s automatic voter registration program was delayed and started with correctable errors that were discovered and fixed by the Secretary of State’s Office. But the registration errors by the DMV and the California Department of Technology are a reflection of those agencies’ failures, not of the New Motor Voter Law itself.

Moreover, there has been zero evidence of these errors resulting in any illegal voting or malfeasance.

Any efforts to reduce this registration program back to an opt-in process, before an audit of both the DMV and the CDT is even completed, is solely intended to rebuild old barriers, not to protect voters.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone the effort to bring back this voting barrier is being pushed by the former Republican leader. The GOP has made it clear: The only way they can win elections in California is by disenfranchising as many voters as possible.

We cannot allow Republicans to continue using misinformation and scare tactics to try to turn back the clock on voting rights. We have fixed the issues identified during the roll out of New Motor Voter, now we have to continue our effort to ensure as many citizens as possible can participate in our democracy.