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Reforms to Boost Voter Turnout Unlikely to Achieve Big Gains

But Online Registration, New Rules For Mail Ballots Have Other Benefits

SAN FRANCISCO, January 22, 2014—Two reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout in California—online registration and a proposal to relax the deadline for mail-in ballots—are unlikely to result in large gains, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). But these changes could improve the system in other ways.

A third reform—same-day voter registration—is also unlikely to increase turnout substantially. While it will probably add a few percentage points to turnout, it also could add significant costs for county registrars if there are late surges in registration—as has happened in states that have implemented similar changes.

California policymakers have considered the three reforms—and adopted two of them—in an effort to boost turnout, which has been declining for 20 years compared to other states. The report looks at both the effect on turnout and the administrative costs of each reform.

  • Online voter registration. Implemented in September 2012, online voter registration was immediately popular among Californians: more than half of all new registrants in the last month of the registration period used it. The new system is also much cheaper than the old paper system, and it reduces the risk of error by eliminating the need to transfer information from mail-in forms. But online registration changed the dynamics, rather than the level, of registration. More Californians registered earlier and fewer registered late, resulting in a very small overall increase to 25.9 percent of potential new voters, compared to 25.5 percent in 2004 and 24.9 percent in 2008. And online registration did not significantly change the demographic makeup of California’s electorate, which has long been older, whiter, and wealthier than the overall population.
  • New deadline for mail-in ballots. Currently, vote-by-mail ballots must arrive on or before election day to be counted. A bill introduced in 2013 (SB 29) would consider ballots valid if they are postmarked by election day and arrive by the third day after the election. PPIC’s research shows that while a majority of ballots are now cast by mail in California, late ballots are extremely rare. An analysis covering two-thirds of the mail ballots cast in California in 2012 found that just 18,064, or 0.4 percent, were late. However, late ballots constitute a large share of those that go uncounted—at least one of every five uncounted mail ballots in most counties in the PPIC analysis. In a close election, these ballots could make a difference.
  • Same-day registration. This reform—adopted but not yet implemented—will allow California voters who miss the registration deadline to both register and vote on any day thereafter, up to and including election day. This reform has produced, at best, modest increases in turnout in other states that have adopted it. These other states are far less demographically diverse than California, so there is a chance that the outcome will be different here. Although voter turnout has not been significantly affected by same-day registration, the number of people choosing to register late has often been substantial. If the experience in other states is any indication, there will be at least 90,000 late registrants in Los Angeles County alone. It is possible, however, that online registration—which seems to encourage earlier registration–might somewhat offset the burden of same-day registration on counties in California.

“Online registration actually saves county registrars time and money, and cuts down on errors,” said Eric McGhee, the report’s author and a PPIC research fellow. “Likewise, counting late vote-by-mail ballots adds minimal cost, and comes with the large benefit of counting an otherwise legitimate vote. Same-day registration is a little different. It’s a big change for county registrars, with new challenges, and it will be important to prepare for them.”

Given these challenges, McGhee suggests that California could further offset the same-day registration cycle—and maybe even slightly increase turnout—if it adopted a system of automatic voter registration. Under such a system, verifiable information provided by citizens who interact with government—with county social service agencies or the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example—would put all eligible voters on the registration rolls by default. Voters would not be required to divulge any additional information and could choose to opt out of the system. This would be a significant change from the status quo, which requires voters to proactively opt in.

The report concludes that the state will need to do more than remove administrative barriers if it wants to expand the size of the electorate. It will need to do aggressive outreach to voters who are underrepresented at the polls and often overlooked in get-out-the-vote drives.

The report is Expanding California’s Electorate: Will Recent Reforms Increase Voter Turnout? It is supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

ABOUT PPIC

PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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