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Blog Post · March 22, 2024

Video: Do Registration Reforms Add New Voters or Keep Californians Registered?

photo - Diverse Group Uses Phones While Waiting To Vote

Under California New Motor Voter (CNMV)—the state’s version of automatic voter registration, or AVR—people must answer questions about registering to vote before they can complete a DMV transaction, like renewing a license. CNMV has several goals in mind: to increase registration, to make the registered population representative of the state’s broader population, and to maintain the voter file. On March 12, PPIC researcher Eric McGhee outlined new research into whether AVR has achieved these goals.

CNMV has not been the only registration change.  The state also improved the address update process for cross-county moves—when someone updates an address at the DMV or at the post office, the change is now sent to the new county through VoteCal, the statewide voter database, rather than someone having to re-register on their own.

Both new registrations and address updates have surged. Within-county address updates have increased almost as much as those across county lines. Because VoteCal affected only cross-county updates, the growth in within-county updates is a signal that CNMV has been the main force behind the rise in address updates overall.

These distinctions matter because the source of the changes can indicate whether the electorate is expanding through new registrations or being maintained through address updates. McGhee noted that maintaining the voter file is a laudable goal but stressed that new registrations might have greater numbers from underrepresented groups—young Californians and residents who are Black, Latino, and Asian American; address updates are more likely to be white.

McGhee also acknowledged the argument that excitement around the 2020 presidential election, which led to high registration and voter turnout across the country, could have been the true source of the changes in California’s voter file. But in national data that compares states with AVR in 2020 to those without, new registrants and address updates both grew more among AVR states.

Results are mixed around whether the reforms are making the California voter file more representative, according to McGhee. Address updates increased most among middle-aged rather than young Californians, and among Asian Americans. For new registrants, numbers rose among both middle-aged and young, with a notable increase among Asian Americans.

Because people of color are underrepresented in the voter file, the goal with AVR was to see a disproportionate effect for these groups—which mostly did not happen. “We’re doing a lot to make sure the file is maintained as it is, not expanding its scope,” McGhee said. “So the representativeness of the file did not accelerate at quite the rate we would otherwise expect.”  One solution may be to promote AVR through agencies like Medi-Cal and CalWORKs.

And despite the rise in registration, voter turnout among new CNMV registrants was lower than among either movers or those newly registered by some other method. McGhee, however, sees the bright side: the CNMV process “makes sure that one part of the process—that people are registered to vote—is taken care of … and it makes contact easier for the next step of the process.” Engaging new CNMV registrants may then demand more frequent reminders to people that they are registered, along with using trusted messengers in the community to encourage them to vote.


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