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Motor voter: An electorate in flux

As rush hour approaches, traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photo: Frontpage)

To Democrats, it’s the long-overdue removal of a barricade to full participation in California’s civic life.

To Republicans, it poses a danger that a flood of illegal immigrants will start participating in political decision-making.

“Expansion of registration doesn’t axiomatically mean an increase in voter turnout,” Bebitch pointed out in a telephone interview.  “It takes more than that (registration) to get someone to participate.”

To political experts up and down California, it’s a question mark that likely will involve rethinking some practices and require a great deal of new effort.

It’s California’s new Motor Voter law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 10 and scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

Here’s how it would work:

When someone goes into a DMV office to obtain a driver’s license, or renew one, or get a state identification card, the person will be asked, as now, for the usual information — name, date of birth and address.  But under the new law, the applicant will also be asked to affirm his or her eligibility to vote.  Unless the applicant opts out, he or she will be automatically registered.  The applicant’s information will be electronically transmitted to the Secretary of State’s office for placement on the voter rolls after verification of citizenship and names.

The measure would not take effect until a new computerized voter registration database is established, probably some time next year.  There is a real question as to whether implementation will proceed quickly enough to be in effect in time for the November 2016 general election.

In general, Democrats like Motor Voter; Republicans don’t.

Leaving aside the idealism involved in bringing millions more into California’s civic life, most political observers believe Motor Voter was supported by Democrats because they calculate it is likely to bring more votes to Democrats, and Republicans oppose it for the same reason.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed similar legislation last March after it passed both legislative chambers without a single Republican vote.

“The motivation among Democrats is to deepen the pool (of Democratic voters) otherwise Republicans wouldn’t be so upset,” says longtime California political expert Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

“The new registrants will tend to be Democratic, but there may well be an increase in the percentage of independents — Decline to State,” she added.

But how many of the newly enrolled will actually cast a ballot for anyone remains an open question.  In November of 2014, California had an abysmal turnout of 42.2 percent of registered voters.

“Expansion of registration doesn’t axiomatically mean an increase in voter turnout,” Bebitch pointed out in a telephone interview.  “It takes more than that (registration) to get someone to participate.”

Andrew Acosta, a Sacramento consultant, agrees. “Increasing the number of those registered is great, but it’s really about who votes,” he said in a telephone interview.  “Consultants say, ‘show me who votes.’ ”

California has now become the second state in the nation to pass a Motor Voter law.  Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed similar legislation last March after it passed both legislative chambers without a single Republican vote.  (For those interested in political trivia, Oregon’s Brown and California’s Brown both served previously as secretary of state before becoming governors.)

“It may not be on Day One,” Padilla said in a telephone interview.  “It depends on implementation from the DMV and the Brown people.”

The legislation Brown signed was sponsored by Secretary of State Alex Padilla and jointly authored by Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego and Luis Alejo of Salinas along with state Sen. Kevin McCarty of Sacramento.  All are Democrats.

Padilla, naturally enough, casts Motor Voter in idealistic terms.

“In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental,” he said in a statement.  “The New Motor Voter Act will make our democracy stronger by removing a key barrier to voting for millions of California citizens.”

Padilla aims at bringing aboard “upwards of 6 million” of the 6.6 million Californians eligible to vote, but who have not cast ballots.

“It may not be on Day One,” Padilla said in a telephone interview.  “It depends on implementation from the DMV and the Brown people.”  He said his staff has been conferring with officials in Oregon on implementation– “picking their brains.”  Padilla says that if it works out the way he thinks it will, Motor Voter in California will “result in the largest sustained voter registration drive in our nation’s history.”

There is also the fact that being known as “The Father of Motor Voter in California” would most likely be a campaign advantage should he seek the governorship or a U. S. Senate seat.

“There will be a new wave of voters we just don’t know about yet,” Acosta acknowledged.

The bill passed by a 53-11 margin in the Assembly and 24-15 in the state Senate.  In the Senate, all Republicans who voted opposed the bill.  It would “further undermine the integrity of our election system.,” said Sen. Jeff Stone of Murrieta.

“This bill will effectively change the form of governance in California from a Republic whose elected officials are determined by United States citizens and will guarantee that non-citizens will participate in all California elections going forward,” said Linda Paine, President and Co-founder of the Santa Clarita-based Election Integrity Project, in a letter to Brown urging a veto of motor voter.  EIP describes itself as a grass-roots organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of the voting process.

Democrat Acosta scoffed at the Republicans’ professed concerns.

“Republicans have historically been the devotees of conspiracy theories — black helicopters and all that,” he said.

Political outreach to now-unregistered Californians under Motor Voter will involve communicating with and motivating the state’s two rapidly growing minorities that have historically voted in fewer numbers — Latinos and Asians.  Only 17.3 percent of eligible Latinos and 18.4 percent of eligible Asians voted in the 2014 general election, according to the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change.

Political practitioners from all points of view realize the potential and the headaches involved in the alchemy of turning them into voters favorable to their candidate or cause.  There are sophisticated methods of reaching groups with established voting records — that’s where campaign managers have so far concentrated limited campaign funds — but the new registrants will be terra incognito.

“There will be a new wave of voters we just don’t know about yet,” Acosta acknowledged.

It’s likely to be expensive.  Consultants will have to learn more lessons on how to reach those potential, but hitherto-untapped Asian or Hispanics and spend more money doing it. It’s probably a safe bet that in offices around the Capitol, consultants are already busy trying to figure out the most effective way to convert those potential gold mines to real votes.

At present, they face more questions than answers.

 


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