California makes it easier than ever to vote, but will it work?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: Columbia City Blog)

While other states passed measures making it harder to vote, California’s made it easier than ever to cast a ballot.

Faced with the nation’s second-lowest rate of voter participation during the last several years, state lawmakers have introduced a flurry of legislation designed to reduce barriers to the ballot box. The idea behind these electoral changes is simple enough: if you make it more convenient for people to vote, they will. In a report released Thursday, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) examines whether or to what extent recent efforts to broaden the electorate will translate into gains in voter participation.

According to the report, which assesses the potential impact of online voter registration, same-day voter registration, and extending the deadline for vote-by-mail ballots, the nonpartisan think tank predicts recent reforms will yield only modest positive effects on turnout.

Election experts participating in a panel discussion held to coincide with the release of the report disagreed, claiming the combined impact should be evaluated rather than individually. Together, these changes have the potential to cut the number of unregistered eligible California voters in half, Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause, pointed out. She said that in combination, these reforms could potentially cut the number of eligible but unregistered voters in half. That’s roughly 3 million people, and a pretty big number by any standard.

Although it’s too early to determine their overall impact on voter participation, with significant increases unlikely, the report concludes the state must broaden and expand the methods used to boost turnout beyond reducing procedural barriers.

California has become a relatively voter-friendly state, due in large part to the current trend toward convenience voting. Yet despite facing fewer administrative barriers, too many Californians still aren’t voting. The report suggests concentrating additional efforts on encouraging people to actually get out and cast a ballot.

“We need to shift our thinking a little, from the idea of facilitating registration and voting, to the idea of mobilizing people to vote,” said Eric McGhee, the report’s author and a PPIC research fellow. An aggressive outreach strategy to low-propensity voters and traditionally underrepresented communities has the greatest potential to significantly boost turnout, McGhee indicated.

Panelists had varying points of view on the extent to which government has a responsibility to remedy voter apathy.  

It’s absolutely a governmental responsibility, said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County Registrar.  In fact, “it’s part of government accountability,” he added. “We’re spending a lot of money on election administration. We have to look at the return on that public investment and ask whether we’re doing it effectively and efficiently.”

The state’s top election official agreed, highlighting that an informed electorate is a perquisite for a healthy democracy.  “Part of the role of government is to educate people about what it means to be a citizen,” affirmed Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Stressing the importance of civic education, she argues, “we really ought to be starting a Sesame Street.”

With more than third of eligible voters still not registered and a two-decade decline in turnout despite added convenience, it’s clear the system needs fixing. Ensuring the electoral process is inclusive and accessible to all Californians is essential to the health of our vibrant democracy.


Alexandra Bjerg

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