The California motor voter act, which passed both houses of the Legislature Sept. 10, has been waiting in legislative limbo ever since. The controversial bill would automatically register all eligible voters who obtain a driver’s license, a move that could bring millions of new voters to the rolls in California. Proponents call it an important update to the democratic process, while opponents warn that it could subvert the process by accidentally enrolling ineligible voters. Either way, the move could have big implications for the 2016 election season.
AB 1461 arrived at the governor’s desk Sept. 11, where it waits to be to be signed, rejected, or passed by default. The bill was penned by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales who cited California’s historically low voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election as inspiration.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, only 42 percent of registered voters turned out in 2014, which was down almost 60 percent from the 2010 gubernatorial election. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 73 percent of eligible voters are registered in the state—17.7 million out of the total population of 24.4 million eligible adults.
This bill seeks to close the gap but has many people worried about voter fraud, specifically among immigrants. The implementation of AB 60, a law that allows the DMV to issue driver’s licenses to California residents, regardless of their immigration status, has many worried that the DMV could enroll undocumented immigrants by accident.
The bill would automatically enroll California drivers, unless they opt out. If they don’t opt out, drivers will be asked to sign a form attesting to their voter eligibility—voters must be over 18 at election time, without a felony conviction, and they must be citizens. It passed both houses along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Local Democratic Sen. Bill Monning, however, voted against his party and the bill. Broadly, Monning said he’s in favor of “expanding the voter franchise.” His concern with AB 1461 is that people might accidentally register to vote when they are not eligible, and that could cause trouble for immigrants seeking citizenship.
“Some people may be unwittingly signing the attestation form,” Monning said. “They may be law-abiding, tax-paying residents, who make a mistake, and then when they go to adjust their status, this accident could block their effort, and may be considered a crime by some.”
Republicans have been more pointed in their criticism, citing the potential for voter fraud, especially among undocumented immigrants with newly minted driver’s licenses. Beyond voter fraud, increasing the rolls could push the California Republican party into further irrelevancy. In a February 2015 report, the Public Policy Institute of California said that 49 percent of unregistered voters had Democratic leanings, while only 22 percent leaned Republican.
It’s not clear if voter registration will translate to voter turnout, but if it does 2016 could be a doozy for state politics. Historic low turn out in 2014 means that getting an initiative on the ballot will be easier than in previous years, while the number of actual voters, which is typically higher in a presidential election, could be much higher in previous years.