PPIC hosted a panel of leading experts on voter participation in Sacramento yesterday to talk about several important voter reforms underway. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan, and California Common Cause Director Kathay Feng responded to a new report from PPIC that says a series of reforms implemented or under consideration in California would result in a small improvement in voter participation. The reforms include online voter registration (which started in 2012), election day registration (expected to start in 2016), and a later deadline for ballots submitted by mail (which is under consideration in the legislature). The PPIC report, by research fellow Eric McGhee, found that online registration changed the way people registered but was responsible for only a very small increase in voter participation.
Still, panelists were hopeful about the future of online registration. They were happy to see that nearly 1 million people used it in the first year—even, as Bowen pointed out, when there was no money to advertise the online option. Feng also said that even small improvements can make a big difference in California, where more than 5 million people are eligible but not registered to vote.
Similarly, panelists expressed optimism about same-day registration—in which voters can both register and cast ballots at a county registrar’s office on election day. They also raised concerns about the potential administrative burden this change would place on local officials. Logan said attempts are being made to modify the policy and alleviate some of the burden before the reform is scheduled to take effect.
In addition to making voting more convenient, panelists talked about the need to motivate voters. Feng pointed to concern about the “exclusive electorate,” as described in a past PPIC report showing that likely voters are far more likely to be white and older than the California voting-age population as a whole. She said it’s important to find out what turns residents off to voting, as well as what might turn them on. Bowen added that government should encourage more civic education to teach “citizens how to be citizens.”
Members of the audience asked questions about the impact of negative campaigns on voter participation, the impact of budget cuts, and the opportunities created by a new voter registration database that is scheduled to be completed in 2016.