Millions of Californians aren’t even registered to vote — is help on the way?

150 150 John Guenther

(Photo credit: Aaron Webb)

It’s hard to believe that one-third of all eligible California voters – over 8-million citizens – are not even registered to vote. Another way to say it is that the number of California’s unregistered potential voters would make up a state with more people than Arizona.

Not good.

Registration and accessible elections information for voters are essential to making sure Californians have a voice on issues like education spending and who represents them on the local, state and national level. And as the State Auditor found in her report “Office of the Secretary of State: It Must Do More to Ensure Funds Provided Under the Federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Are Spent Effectively” released to the governor and legislature in August, “The [Secretary of State’s] Office can do more to implement important requirements of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to increase the rates of voter registration.”

Senator Alex Padilla, who’s running for Secretary of State, has introduced several elections reform bills including one which would modernize California’s voter registration system and increase online access to information on elections.

SB 361, as amended last week, will require the California Secretary of State (SOS) to maintain an accurate statewide voter registration database and allow voters to check their registration status, the status of their absentee ballot, polling place location, and choose to receive elections information by email instead of mail. The website must be translated into all Voting Rights Act required languages and be accessible to people with disabilities.

This is promising.  Despite the efforts of many county elections websites, the lack of a statewide lookup tool is one of the reasons California ranks 48th under The Pew Charitable Trust’s nationwide evaluation of state election administration.

The legislation also requires the SOS to jointly establish automated voter registration systems with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), California Community Colleges, California State Universities and other agencies that are designated by the NVRA. A key finding in the State Auditor’s report on HAVA funding discovered that despite the simultaneous requirement under the “Motor Voter” law, applying for a drivers license does not act as a simultaneous application for voter registration. SOS staff noted at the hearing that streamlining registration is the “gold standard” for elections administration and SB 361 takes some necessary steps in this direction.

Senator Padilla removed an element of the bill that would have made it possible for California to join other states that are securely and  anonymously comparing voter information with other states using a system built by the states called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). ERIC enables participating states to confidentially identify voters who have moved,  died, or are eligible citizens who have not yet registered to vote, and consistent with federal law, requires states to contact those voters to confirm their new address, or invite them to register.

David Becker, Director of Election Initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts, testified to the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting that if California joined the other states in ERIC – including Colorado, Nevada, and Washington – California would see hundreds of thousands of new voters registering as a result, most using online registration rather than paper. In addition, ERIC would likely identify around a million California voter records that are no longer up-to-date, enabling the state to better comply with the NVRA and begin the process of updating those records.

CA Fwd will continue to monitor this and other legislation that is designed to help improve voter participation in California (where we rank a dismal 45th nationally). One in ten U.S. voters live here in the Golden State. We need to do better. 


John Guenther

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