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Improving California’s Automatic Voter Registration

photo - Voter Registration Form

California’s voter registration rate is higher than ever. The latest report from February put the registration rate at an astonishing 88%, up 15% from six years ago. The California New Motor Voter (CNMV) law—which streamlined voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)—has been responsible for much of this unprecedented increase. Proposed new legislation (AB 796) aims to build on this early success by improving some aspects of the program. We do not take a position on the bill, but it gives us a chance to look at how CNMV could register even more voters and better monitor its own performance.

CNMV requires the DMV to take information collected for driver’s license and state ID transactions and repurpose it for voter registration, unless the DMV customer says otherwise or does not answer certain questions. The DMV then sends these voter registration records to the Secretary of State (SoS) for inclusion in the state’s voter file. AB 796 would strengthen this data link with new deadlines and dedicated liaisons on both sides. The bill would also set up a task force to advise the SoS on CNMV’s performance and require periodic reports on the program’s registration activity.

This focus on improving CNMV makes sense, but there is still more that could be done (as we outlined in a recent report). For example, the registration process is not as automatic as it could be. The DMV requires customers to fill out the entire voter registration form if they want to be registered. Instead, it could fill in sensible defaults that customers could either let stand or change as they see fit.

In addition, there is little information about DMV customers who are eligible to vote but do not register. Improving the program requires knowing more about these potential adopters. At a bare minimum, the DMV could report the number of customers who provided Social Security numbers—key identifiers of citizenship—in their driver’s license applications, whether or not they answered any voter registration questions.

Aggregated information about age, geographic location, type of transaction (e.g., address update, new driver’s license) and how far the DMV customer made it through the process could also provide a more complete picture of the program’s reach without violating any customer’s privacy. (Important demographics such as race/ethnicity or education are not available from driver’s license applications.)

The DMV could even go a step further and transmit the records themselves to the SoS, stripped of Social Security numbers. The SoS could then follow up with customers who did not answer any voter registration questions to ensure they did not mistakenly miss the opportunity.

CNMV’s initial performance has been strong, but it can be stronger. And Californians need a better understanding of where it is succeeding and where it falls short. This understanding can help the state make any necessary changes and see how many more potential voters can be reached.

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