By Grace Masback
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
In the democratic system, the people have right be involved in the structure and action of government. This ideal has been part of the United States since its inception. When the framers of the Constitution launched the federal government in the late 18th century, this right was extended only to white, male property owners. The 19th amendment made voting a universal right. Yet, in recent years, legislatures, law enforcement, and even citizens have begun to see voting less as a “right,” and more as a “privilege.”
To resolve this, California is taking action to secure voting rights. On Oct. 12, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a piece of legislation dubbed “The New Motor Voter Bill” that automatically registers state residents to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, permit, or state issued ID at a local DMV.
California joined Oregon, which passed similar legislation last March, as the second state in the nation to automatically register citizens to vote as part of routine business at the DMV. Although Californians will have the chance to “opt out” while at the DMV, the information of those who don’t opt out will be sent directly to the Secretary of State’s office for automatic voter registration.
The New Motor Voter law will chip away at the approximately six to seven millionCalifornians who are currently unregistered to vote. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla expressed support of the bill in an interview for “Huffington Post” stating, “In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental, I applaud Governor Brown for his leadership and bold action to increase voter participation in our state.”
Supporters of the bill say it will save money, boost voting security, and encourage increased participation in the electoral process. Because voter information will be electronically sent from the DMV to the Secretary of State’s office, the new system is will avoid the prospect of entering the voter registration data by hand, a process that is both arduous and prone to human error.
The United States is one of few western democracies where the burden of voter registration falls on the people. In Canada, for example, the government takes responsibility for making sure its citizens are registered to vote. Over 62 million eligible Americans are currently not registered to vote — that is 1 in 4 eligible people can not take part in the democratic process.
Social-justice and voting-rights groups including the Brennan Center for Justice and iVote, spent six-figure sums to encourage the passage of the legislation. A survey of Californians showed that69 percent were in support of the idea.
Since the Oregon bill passed last March, the concept of automatic voter registration has grown, and 17 other democratic legislatures have introduced legislation to pass similar laws.
Those in opposition of the California law have expressed concerns about privacy breaches and voter fraud. California Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone was quoted by Vox as stating that the bill would “further undermine the integrity of our election system.” Opponents also argue that some citizens might prefer to remain exempt from the democratic process, and for those that do want to be a part, filling out a form is not that much work.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla doesn’t agree. He told the Huffington Post, “Automated voter registration is actually a more secure way of doing things. Potential voters have to demonstrate proof of age, the vast majority of time people are showing a birth certificate or a passport, which also reflects citizenship. That’s arguably more secured than someone checking a box under penalty of perjury.”
Only 42 percent of Californians voted in the most recent midterm elections. The lowest voter turnout was among young voters, mainly millennials aged 18-24. Only 54 percent of California’s population in this age group is registered to vote. Youth often don’t know about or understand how to register, and many proponents of automatic voter registration believe that it will help to encourage these young voters to participate more regularly in the democratic process.
Emily Rusch, the executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, stated in an interview with NPR, “Our democracy is absolutely dependent on the participation of all our eligible citizens. But right now we see that far too many Californians aren’t even registered to vote, so they’re not even getting information about the election.”The law in California goes effect in January, but it will not begin registering people to vote until the summer of 2016.
The new law in California stands in stark contrast to recent action in Alabama. On Oct. 1, Alabama announced that due to “budgetary restrictions” it would close 31 DMVs in predominately African American counties, potentially making it more difficult for surround communities to get the identification required under the restrictive voter ID law that went into effect in 2014.
In 2011, Alabama passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, requiring all potential voters to secure a state-issued voter ID. Forms of acceptable ID include driver’s licenses, driver’s permits, concealed carry permits, some forms of school ID, and a special type of ID that the state created specifically for the law.
The rationale for the law was that it would help to prevent voter fraud, although in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare. A report by the Washington Post on the topic of historic evidence of voter fraud in the United States found only 31 credible instances of fraud per one billion ballots cast.
Nearly 500,000 Alabama citizens, mainly African-Americans, other minorities, seniors, and students, were disenfranchised as a result of the law. When the law passed in 2011, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) required Alabama to get approval for any adjustments to its voting policies from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), due to the long history of discriminatory voting regulations in the state. From 1965 to 2013, at least 100 potentially discriminatory voting changes were recorded and blocked by the DOJ.
In 2013, when the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision struck down Section 5 of the VRA, the provision that gave the DOJ the power to review voting legislation emanating from individual states. On the same day of the 2013 Supreme Court decision, Alabama announced that it would implement its strict voter ID law.
Eight of the ten counties in which the DMVs will be closed are made up of a majority of non-white voters – in these counties, which fall along Alabama’s so-called “black belt,” 75 percent of voters are African American. In a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Alabama Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell stated, “These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled, and black communities.”
The DMV closures have been attributed to budget cuts, yet the impoverished counties in which they reside are some of the most Democratic-leaning in the Republican-controlled state. Hillary Clinton issued a statement warning that the DMV closures are “only going to make it harder for people to vote,” characterizing them as “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
Republican lawmakers in Alabama have defended the DMV closures, stating there are still options in every county for citizens to obtain special non-driver’s license voter IDs.Yet since the voter ID law went into effect in 2013, only 1442 of such cards have been issued. In a letter to the state this week, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund expressed interest in taking action against the state of Alabama asserting the actions in Alabama are, “creating a substantial and disproportionate burden on black people’s ability to participate in the political process in Alabama.”
Many see the closures as a simple ploy to maintain Republican dominion over the state by disenfranchising minority voters who tend to vote for Democrats. Representative Sewell said on MSNBC, “I grew up in Selma; I’m a third-generation Alabamian. My own dad stood in lines at a water fountain labeled ‘colored.’ So now, it’s frightening that we’re seeing a renewed assault on voting rights, including these DMV closures. It’s unconscionable and we should not just sit back and let this happen.”
In 2014, Alabama had the lowest voter turnout for its midterm elections in three decades. By contrast, Oregon’s automatic voting law is expected to push 300,000 new voters to the polls. The great divergence in the actions of these two states is indicative of the increasingly polarized and partisan landscape that dominates American politics today.
Photo Credit: CatlinSpeak