Essay: Public Policy Analysis of Automatic Voter Registration in California

CJ Trowbridge

For Proessor Vince Latino

American Government Class



California Public Policy Case Study


Only about half of Americans are registered to vote, and only about half of those actually do (McGreevy). This is a problem for any democracy. If the public does not participate, then the democracy does not function.  I recently attended a luncheon with Alex Padilla, California’s Secretary of State, hosted by the Freedom Foundation. He talked a lot about his responsibility as Secretary of State to work to address this problem and about his specific efforts to fight apathy and expand what he describes as an upward trend in both voter registration and in actually voting. (This is why I was late to the first exam!) One controversial policy he intends to implement is automatic voter registration for any qualified person when they are getting or renewing a driver’s license. In McGreevy’s article, he quotes Padilla as saying, “Citizens should not be required to opt in to their fundamental right to vote.” It would take nearly 20 million new voters next cycle to beat the national all-time high, and Padilla thinks he has part of the answer for fulfilling California’s share of that burden (Wallace).


Historically in America, voter participation and voter registration have been a tide which ebbs and flows along with hot-button issues and with wars and other large-scale events which impact the entire nation. 2016 was the lowest year in over two decades for voter turnout (Wallace). For centuries, more and more people have become eligible to vote, and yet fewer and fewer actually take advantage of their right to have their opinions heard in the deciding of the direction of our country’s future (US Census).


Ironically, it is often those who stand to gain or lose the most who are the worst offenders. They shoot themselves in the foot by staying at home while their fates are decided by people who don’t share their interests. Minorities, the young, the poor, and the uneducated have some of the lowest turnout rates (US Census). These are the very people who stand to gain the most from policies like better education, better access to healthcare, and more inclusion in the system. But historically, there has been a widespread and very public campaign to suppress their voices and their votes by special interests that stand to gain from their absence. In fact, during the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump’s campaign went on the record describing what they called a sophisticated legal effort they were conducting in order to suppress the votes of women and African-Americans because according to the campaign, those groups overwhelmingly supported his opponent (Haberman).


No stranger to these facts as the son of two Mexican immigrants, Alex Padilla is spearheading new legislation and associated policy in California which seeks to create a system to automatically register voters when they get or renew their driver’s license at the DMV (Mason).  Padilla says this will improve access for those voters who will be able to show up and cast ballots without needing to take the extra steps of learning how to register, and getting their paperwork in on time, while balancing their busy lives. These people will have already registered, and need only show up to vote or mail in their ballots early like I do (Mason). Mr. Padilla told me that he arrived at this strategy through conversations with other State Secretaries at a recent national conference where they all discussed strategies they had attempted or wanted to attempt in order to increase voter registration and voter turnout.


For the last century, voter participation has bobbed between 33.9% in 1942 to 63% in 1960. During previous centuries, participation was much higher. At the turn of the 20th century, The first presidential election had nearly a 75% participation rate. Keep in mind though that a much smaller group of people were eligible to vote at that time, so these numbers are sort of misleading. The percentages since then have never approached these heights (NY Times). These shameful numbers set us at the bottom of the world for participation, behind a full 31 other countries with better voter participation than we have. This is perhaps the one topic where we have something to learn from Turkey. With their compulsory voting laws, they are able to achieve nearly 90% participation (Desilver). I am not sure that such a system would go over very well in the United States, but I find myself envying them their high civic participation.


There are many theories about why Americans do not vote. The Washington Post’s Pippa Norris says it is because Americans do not trust American elections. This makes sense when the person who won the most recent one spent much of his time repeating the lie that the election was being rigged. This loud and public faux-fact could be seen to combine with the confusing fact of his victory despite not actually winning the most votes, and one can easily imagine how a disheartened voter could shrug off responsibility for what looks a lot like an overtly corrupt and broken system which makes no attempt to honor the wishes of the people. This is vibrantly illustrated as Pippa further notes that in one Gallup poll two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, just 35% of Americans felt confident that their vote would be counted accurately. This number was very shocking to me.


Another theory about why Americans don’t vote is postulated by Scott Clement, also of The Washington Post. In his article, he analyzes reporting from the Census Bureau which indicates that the most popular reason given by Americans for not voting was that they are “too busy.” This excuse is followed by “general lack of interest.” Clement paraphrases the results of the Census Bureau research, “Few people blamed registration issues.” This seems to imply that Alex Padilla’s solution of automatic registration may not impact turnout as much as he seems to feel it will. Nevertheless, it seems like a right step to take.


In fact, there is a great example just next door in Oregon where this exact same policy was implemented last year. Eligible voters who interacted with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Oregon would automatically be registered to vote. According to the New York Times’ Niraj Chrokshi, over 225,000 new voters were signed up through this new policy in Oregon in 2016. Despite this huge influx of new registered voters, the people in question turned out to vote at just half the state’s average rate. This is a point which Alex Padilla elaborated on during his keynote which I attended. He called it ironic that higher numbers of new registrants who vote at a lower rate actually harm the average, though the total number of votes is higher. This is exactly what happened in Oregon this year (Lehman). This is an important point to keep in mind as it seems likely based on this example that the success of this policy could look like a net loss, though it is actually a gain.


Another hot-button issue related to this topic is the President’s repeated lies that millions of illegal immigrants are voting which he falsely claims cost him the popular vote. This claim, like so many of his, is demonstrably false and has been roundly debunked by all major media outlets and law enforcement agencies (Fox News)(NBC News)(Bloomberg). I was particularly interested to see Alex Padilla’s response to these repeated lies from the President. He reiterated to me that these claims are false, and his office goes in detail online about the requirements that a person be a citizen and a legal resident, and fulfill various other requirements before they can register to vote. He also said that these things are checked for before a person is offered the automatic voter registration application by the Department of Motor Vehicles (Padilla).


In his article, “Countering the lies of the left: ‘Mandatory voter registration’ is a bad idea,” author Robert Knight argues that the wave of new legislation aimed at registering more voters could lead to less informed voters casting ballots which reflect uninformed opinions (Knight). First it is important to note that the author is deliberately distorting the issue by calling the registration mandatory when in fact the registrant is given the chance to opt-out. Either way, this strikes me as a poor argument against automatic registration for two reasons. Being an uninformed voter is a divorced issue from automatic registration. Despite these policies not yet fully being implemented, we see the rise of populism and the post-fact reality of our current President clearly demonstrating that voters who register the old fashioned way are already about as uninformed as is imaginable. Secondly, whether a person is informed or not, they have the right to vote. It seems obvious that arguing for obstacles to be put in the way of voters is simply arguing against people exercising their voting rights.


Another argument against automatic registration is the apparent fact that most people who want to vote are already registered to vote, so turnout percentages will go down if more people are registered automatically (Lehman). I would argue that this is actually an advantage. For example, when we calculate unemployment rates, we ignore people who have given up on looking for work. This makes the numbers misrepresent the problem and effectively sweeps the issue under the rug. Whether we are talking about the percentage of people who do not vote, or the percentage of people who do not work, a more honest metric includes those who are reluctant to participate. This will allow further research and action to be taken with full knowledge of who the people are who are not participating, and potentially the reasons why, which can then be addressed.


After Oregon passed automatic voter registration in 2015, dozens of other states introduced bills to do the same. California was the second state after Oregon to jump on what would become a bandwagon of 34 states with similar legislation on the books or being considered. The Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of Law goes in depth on this wave of legislation which has swept much of the country. In particular I found it very interesting to read that these bills have strong bipartisan support. Even in states with historic problems around voter suppression and civil rights issues, we see broad support on both sides of the aisle for this smart new solution which has the potential to greatly impact voter participation (Brennan Center For Justice). The really great thing about using the Department of Motor Vehicles to implement this policy is that they already have the information necessary to prequalify potential voters before they are even offered the opportunity to register. This is thanks to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, also called “The Motor Voter Act” which required state agencies like the DMV which work directly with residents to offer the residents the opportunity to register to vote while they are there. This new wave of legislation is simply expanding that from opt-in to opt-out (Vicens).


These laws are already either on the books or being legislated in a majority of states. It seems very likely that this issue will soon reach the federal level, and become the standard across the nation. I think this is good, common sense legislation. After researching this topic in depth, I find myself strongly agreeing with Alex Padilla’s quote from my first paragraph, “Citizens should not be required to opt in to their fundamental right to vote.”


Now that we will have more people registered, I think it is incumbent on us to pay close attention to the reasons given by the US Census on why people say they do not vote. (I cited these on page 4) These reasons should become the to-do list of social activists looking to improve the voter participation numbers. At the Freedom Foundation luncheon, Alex Padilla repeated a line that stuck with me and made me believe in this issue, “[It is everyone’s responsibility to fight against apathy.]” Based on my research for this paper, I think apathy is the real problem with low voter turnout, though this policy is a step in the right direction, I do not think it will solve the problem on its own. The larger problem is that people do not care because people do not trust the system.


A 2015 Pew Research poll showed that 74% of Americans feel that most public officials put their own interests ahead of the interests of the country (Pew Research Center). Despite this, there may be some hope for partisan politics though. According to Pew, there are some places where both sides can find some common ground. For example, they both agree that the average person off the street could do a better job than the average person in office. Jokes aside, the biggest issue they identified that both parties can get behind is space exploration. Maybe if officials start focusing more on things like NASA which highlight the potential of the future, rather than focusing on war and political melodrama and twitter feuds and spouting lies about elections being rigged, they would be able to earn some respect from the public and take a bite out of the apathy that is holding voters back from participating.




Works Cited

Bloomberg. House, Billy. Trump Says Undocumented Immigrants Cost Him Popular Vote. 24 January 2017. 16 March 2017 <>.

Chrokshi, Niraj. Automatic Voter Registration a ‘Success’ in Oregon. 2 December 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Clement, Scott. The Washington Post. 17 July 2015. 16 March 2017 <>.

Desilver, Drew. Pew Research Center. 2 August 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Fox News. Chamberlain, Samuel. Trump tells Congressional leaders 3-5 million ‘illegals’ cost him popular vote. 24 January 2017. 16 March 2017 <>.

Haberman, Maggie. NY Times. 27 October 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Knight, Robert. Countering the lies of the left: ‘Mandatory voter registration’ is a bad idea. 18 September 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Law, Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of. Automatic Voter Registration. 10 March 2017. 16 March 2017 <>.

Lehman, Chris. Oregon Turnout: Record High Numbers But Not Record High Percentage. 10 November 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Mason, Melanie. Los Angeles Times. 16 October 2015. 16 March 2017 <>.

McGreevy, Patrick. Los Angeles Times. 10 October 2015. 16 March 2017 <>.

NBC. Hunt, Kasie. Trump Again Makes Debunked Claim: ‘Illegals’ Cost Me Popular Vote. 24 January 2017. 16 March 2017 <>.

NY Times. Editorial Board. New York Times. 11 November 2014. 16 MArch 2017 <>.

Padilla, Alex. California Secretary of State. 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Pew Research Center. Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government. 23 November 2015. 16 March 2017 <>.

Pippa Norris et al. The Washington Post. 26 December 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

US Census. The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race. May 2013. 16 March 2017 <>.

Vicens, AJ. Why Doesn’t Every State Have Automatic Voter Registration? 12 May 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.

Wallace, Gregory. CNN. 30 November 2016. 16 March 2017 <>.