Conferences usually start out with where we are, before jumping to where we need to go. But at the Future of California Elections Conference in Los Angeles, no one even had to mention the problem. 2014’s record-low voter turnout is all democracy advocates have thought about for the last year and a half.
The diversity of the state – in age, ethnicity and income – disappears in low turnout elections, leaving the electorate of 50 years ago to decide the fate of modern-day Californians. Nationally, people of color won’t make up a majority of eligible voters until around 2045. California is already at parity, and according to the California Civic Engagement Project, we'll have a majority minority electorate in this November’s election.
Will these voters ever make it to the polls?
Secretary of State Alex Padilla talked about the big changes that will be taking effect in how we register people to vote and how we run elections. We're on the verge of making huge strides in voter registration. Turnout is a more slippery target, but some reforms that have been successful in other states are being implemented now, and new strategies are deployed by activists every day.
The big development this month is that the state’s voter rolls have finally moved into the 21st Century. A single statewide voter registration database just went online for every county in the state and will be in action for the June primary. It will allow voters to update their registration with ease, and give elections officials confidence that voter rolls are correct.
It has been a long time coming. It is also the cornerstone of most other election reforms. Almost every law California lawmakers have approved in the past four years to improve access and participation in democracy sat idle, waiting for the database to work. Now, those laws start getting implemented, including:
Same-day voting: In 2012 the legislature passed California’s version of same-day voting, a law allowing people to register and vote during the final two weeks before an election. Until now, voters were shut out during that time – which also happens to be the time voters are most likely to learn about an election and the issues at stake. The law sat unused for four years waiting for the voter database to get up and running. Now, counties can look up a voter anywhere, and know if they’re registered or already voted, making same-day voting a reality. It will take effect January 1. The downside? Same-day voting can only happen at official county elections sites. Look for efforts to expand where citizens can same-day register in coming years.
Automatic voter registration: Last year saw the approval of the “New Motor Voter” law, that will automatically register people to vote when they renew their license at the DMV unless they actively choose to opt out. At FOCE, the Secretary of State said estimates of the number of new voters it will eventually add to the rolls have increased to 7 million. Simply getting voters on the rolls increases the chances they participate. Unregistered voters may not even know an election is happening, or when and how they can vote. Registered voters get the voter guide and the sample ballot in the mail, ensuring they have some information before the election starts. Some campaigns may even be moved to reach out to these voters directly, through mailers, canvassing and other outreach. DMV and the Secretary of State's office have already started implementing the law, and project it will be up and running next year.
24-hour ballot drop boxes: Absentee ballot drop boxes will now be created that will increase turnout by allowing voters to return their ballots before election day, at more convenient times and locations. The Secretary of State is due to complete rules for the drop boxes on January 1.
Pre-registration for 16-year-olds: Students as young as 16 will be able to pre-register to vote, so when their 18th birthday arrives they can go straight to the polls. As groups expand their work with civics teachers and other high school programs to teach kids more about civic participation, the generation used to instant gratification will be able to register online on the spot.
People don't vote for two main reasons. Ease: How easy it is to register, get to the polling place, and cast your vote? And Information: Do you know there’s an election, understand the issues, and believe voting matters to you personally? We've made great strides on the ease front. We have a long way to go on the information side.
All-mailed ballot elections have succeeded in increasing turnout in other states. Two star speakers at FOCE were the Oregon and Colorado Secretaries of State, where all-mailed ballot elections are models for proposals in California. According to a Public Policy Institute of California survey, 88 percent of Californians said they were more likely to vote if they automatically received a ballot.
Mailed ballots are the start, but the diversity of civic engagement projects that democracy groups have underway matches the state's diversity. Targeting college students with election information on campus, engaging high school students in civic participation projects in class, connecting issues to elections so citizens know that voting matters, and keeping these engagement efforts going year-round. These are the efforts that will turn the unengaged majority into a voice for change in California civic life.