The right to vote, made automatic

The Observer editorial board

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills into law last week.
California Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills into law last week. AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this weekend a simple bill with a simple premise that should resonate everywhere: More people should be voting, not fewer.

The “New Motor Voter Act” will automatically register all eligible citizens to vote when they obtain or renew a state driver’s license. It’s the second such law in the country; Oregon goes even further by automatically registering all eligible adult citizens in the Department of Motor Vehicle’s database.

Federal law already allows for voters to choose to be registered to vote at DMVs. But as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said: “Citizens should not be required to opt-in to their fundamental right to vote. We do not have to opt-in to other rights, such as free speech and due process.”

California officials say that 7 million additional voters will be registered because of the law. Certainly, eligibility doesn’t guarantee participation, as low voter turnout percentages across the country show. But the law does remove one barrier to voting.

It also also addresses concerns some might have with voter fraud, specifically the potential registration of undocumented immigrants. In Oregon, proof of citizenship is necessary to be automatically registered. In California, those applying for driver’s licenses have to show proof of age, which in the vast majority of instances is done with a birth certificate or passport that also demonstrates citizenship.

As Padilla said: “That’s arguably more secure than someone checking a box under penalty of perjury.”

As for those who fret about privacy issues with automatically being registered in the DMV’s database, no worries: You can opt out of registering that way.

All of which leads us to a somewhat delicious feature of automatic voter registration: It lays bare the reason Republicans really don’t want more people casting ballots – because those voters might vote against them.

It shouldn’t be surprising that California Republicans overwhelmingly opposed the motor voter bill, or that when the New Jersey legislature passed a similar bill this year, Republican Gov. Chris Christie lamely frowned on it. “Is it really too much to ask someone to fill out a form?” he said.

Automatic registration bills were introduced in 15 other states this year, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. In North Carolina, Sen. Jeff Jackson told the editorial board this week that he’s putting together an automatic registration bill for the upcoming short session. It will likely get a chilly reception from Republicans.

It shouldn’t. On Monday, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory proudly announced that online driver’s license renewal will now be available statewide by the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. The improvement was part of an initiative focusing on “improving customer service at the DMV,” the governor’s office said in a news release.

If only the state were just as customer-friendly to voters.