he New Motor Voter Act could make California’s electorate significantly more representative of the state as a whole and could add more than 2 million people to the voter rolls in the first year—an increase of more than 10 percent. However, key implementation issues will determine whether the law achieves its potential.
These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
“If the New Motor Voter Act is implemented successfully, it could have a far-reaching positive impact on political representation and civic engagement in California,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow, who coauthored the report with Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
The 2015 New Motor Voter Act was passed to address California’s lagging voter registration rate by simplifying the process of signing up to vote. Slated to be implemented in July 2017, the law ensures that registration information from customers of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is electronically transmitted to the secretary of state. The law requires the secretary to register any customer who attests to being eligible to vote and does not decline to register.
The report looks at the likely change in the demographic composition of California’s registered voters if the law achieves its maximum potential, and estimates how quickly new voters might be added to the registration rolls based on current registration rates and the number of people who use the DMV.
The report also compares California’s law to a similar law recently rolled out in Oregon. In Oregon, the state identifies eligible voters using DMV records and mails them cards that allow them choose a political party or decline to register. After 21 days, eligible voters are added to the rolls unless they have declined to be registered by turning in the card. The onus is on the customer to opt out of registration. In Oregon, about 7 percent of new registrants have declined to be registered so far.
In contrast, California DMV customers will be registered only if they affirm they are eligible to vote. The way this requirement is implemented—which has not yet been decided—is crucial. To ensure the law’s success, the PPIC report recommends that the state require DMV customers to answer the question about their eligibility to vote before completing their DMV transactions—rather than giving customers the option of not answering at all. If the state takes this step, registration rates are likely to be high, though perhaps not as high as those in Oregon.
The report identifies another potential hurdle in the registration process: customers who visit the DMV in person and agree to register must identify their political party and language preferences on a separate computer terminal. Those who fail to complete the second step may not be registered with the party or language preference they expect—a possible obstacle to voting.
If the impact of California’s new law is similar to that of Oregon’s law, the population of registered voters will become notably younger, more diverse, poorer, less educated—and far more representative of the population of adults eligible to vote. Under a successful New Motor Voter program in California, Latinos would make up 27.8 percent of the electorate, up from 23.8 percent now. The children of foreign-born parents would constitute 35.6 percent of the electorate, up from 31.1 percent, and individuals without a college education would make up 33.1 percent of the electorate, up from 26.8 percent.
The law applies to any DMV customers who apply for a new driver’s license or a new state ID, and those who renew or change their address on an existing license or ID—whether in person, online, or by mail. Based on the sheer volume of customers who cycle through the DMV to make these transactions, the report says the transition to this new electorate could happen more quickly than many have assumed.
The authors caution the new law alone will not solve the problem of voter turnout that hit record lows last year. To achieve substantial gains—and turnout that is more representative of the state—an ongoing effort to reach out to newly registered Californians is essential.
The report, What to Expect from California’s New Motor Voter Law, is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.