California makes it easier for residents to vote

The Sacramento BeeOctober 8, 2012 

California is bucking a national trend this election season, making it easier for people to vote while many states are making it harder.

Those forms you may remember picking up from the library or post office are no longer necessary to register to vote. With a few mouse clicks, Californians can now register or update their registration.

Because of a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month, state residents also should be able to register to vote as late as Election Day by the next presidential election in 2016.

Over time, experts believe, the changes will add many new voters to the rolls – especially those who are young or non-white, groups less likely to register now.

Compare that with other parts of the country, where lawmakers are reducing registration opportunities or establishing new requirements that voters show photo identification at the polls.

The reason for the difference can be explained largely by politics.

States passing voter ID laws tend to be controlled by Republicans. They argue the need to thwart voter fraud, but also tend to benefit from a smaller, more conservative electorate.

Democrats, in charge in California, argue that the electoral process needs to be accessible to more people – a dynamic that helps their candidates' chances. Young people are driving California's population shift toward more diversity.

"If you bring in younger voters, you bring in ethnic voters, and they're more likely in California and probably in other states to vote for Democrats," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll that tracks voter demographics. "So expanding the voter rolls will help Obama and the Democrats."

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said the "political stars aligned" to expand voter access in California with the election of a Democratic governor in addition to the Democratic legislative majorities and secretary of state.

"That's not the case in many other states," she said.

In the last two years, the number of states requiring voters to show photo ID has grown from two to eight, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, though courts blocked the photo ID law in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, and are reviewing it in South Carolina.

Three states – Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee – passed laws requiring voters to show proof of citizenship to register, the center says. At least 16 states introduced bills to make registration harder by limiting registration drives, changing registration procedures when people move, or repealing the very things California recently approved – same-day and online registration.

"Each political party has its own preferences about which voters should be able to vote more easily than others," said Nate Persily, a law professor at Columbia University who focuses on voting and election law.

"So the rules the different parties propose are biased in favor of some voters over others."

Mike Turzai, a Republican legislator in Pennsylvania, illustrated that point when he said this summer that the state's voter ID law "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

A super PAC supporting President Barack Obama's re-election seized on the comment, producing a YouTube video with liberal comedian Sarah Silverman railing against voter ID laws. In it, she says they're "presented as a way to prevent voter fraud but are in fact designed to make it hard for specific people to vote: black people, elderly people, poor people and students."

Some of those groups are likely to benefit from the new voter registration laws in California, said experts gathered this week at a Sacramento forum on civic engagement.

"We think that it will change the demographics quite significantly. Maybe not at first, but certainly over time, as both of those mechanisms become better known and utilized in outreach efforts," said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.

The ability to update an address or register to vote online should increase the participation of 18- to 24-year-olds, who made up 14 percent of the state's population in 2010 but just 9 percent of registered voters, according to a study by Romero.

The number of Latinos and Asian Americans on California voter rolls should also increase with online registration, Romero said, though she expects a more modest demographic shift from the new same-day registration law when it is implemented.

That law, Assembly Bill 1436, was written by a Democrat and cleared the Legislature on a party-line vote. Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue blasted the bill, saying in a statement that it "weakens our election law to dangerous levels."

California Democrats tried unsuccessfully this year to push even more laws to expand voting access, including a bill that would have allowed voters more time to send in vote-by-mail ballots and another that would have allowed people to turn them in outside their own county.

It was a successful bill last year that led to this year's creation of an online voter registration system. In the two weeks since it went live, 220,000 people have used it to register or update their registrations, according to the secretary of state's office.

"California has found a way to make it easier for people to register to vote without making it easier for people to commit fraud," Secretary of State Debra Bowen said.

She dismissed the argument that online registration would aid her Democratic Party, saying that many other states with online registration have Republican secretaries of state or Republican-dominated legislatures.

"So the argument that it is partisan and allows fraud is inaccurate," Bowen said. "I believe it will make our registration more accurate because we can tie a particular voter to their driver's license. … So it's easier to avoid duplicates that can happen when a voter moves from one county to another."

Nationwide, Republicans have led the charge in arguing that fraud at the polls is a problem that needs attention. In fact, several experts said, the most frequent kind of election fraud happens during registration. Most recently, Republicans have come under scrutiny in California, Florida, Nevada and Colorado for hiring people who allegedly fraudulently registered voters to their party.

All of it reflects a country grappling with a massive shift in the ways people vote, said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard.

"We've been moving rapidly toward expanding registration, trying to allow people to vote anywhere, and there's been this backlash – like how do we know the right people are voting?" he said.

Yet the belief that new voting laws will have a massive effect on political representation is overblown, Ansolabehere said. People who don't vote tend slightly to be lower-income and less-educated, he said, groups that frequently vote Democratic.

So expanding access for them would move the electorate "a little bit toward the Democrats," he said. "But not a lot."

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