New modes of voter registration may bring people to the polls
It’s not news that our country has experienced massive voter decline. What is news is that there is an achievable political reform on the California ballot in November to address the lack of voter participation. Election Day Voter Registration is a simple reform that allows voters with proper identification to both register and vote on Election Day.
California reached an all-time low of 24.6 percent participation among eligible voters in last March’s primary. Since the Kennedy presidential election in 1960, voting has declined 30 percent in California, with the 2000 presidential being the lowest turnout since 1924. More than 10 million eligible voters didn’t vote. But if EDVR, represented on the ballot by California’s Proposition 52, is passed on Nov. 5, this lamentable decades-long decline will begin to turn around.
Rob McKay, the man behind Prop 52, hardly fits the stereotype of a successful venture capitalist. McKay, whose family is heir to the Taco Bell fortune (long ago sold to Pepsi-Cola), invested $1 million to get the initiative on the ballot and chairs a family foundation that has supported efforts to redistribute resources, such as the Living Wage law passed in San Francisco, Santa Monica and other California cities. An ardent fan of the working class heroes Oakland Raiders football team, he fundamentally believes in giving back to the community.
But don’t mistake McKay for a wishy-washy liberal. He doesn’t believe in charity, but in giving people the tools they need to make change in their lives and their communities—and the most essential of those tools is the right to vote.
“Voting is the bedrock of our democracy, a shared right and privilege that ties society together,” McKay says. “Voters become stakeholders, so they have more reason to take the steps to be responsible neighbors. This reform may help either party or third parties, I don’t know. The parties will all have to go out and organize. But what I do know is people are truly alienated from our government, and that is not healthy.”
The widespread problems with voting were made crystal clear in the Florida presidential election and again in that state’s recent primary for governor. But, argues Cal Tech professor Mike Alvarez, the biggest problem in American elections isn’t voting machines—it’s voter registration. In many states voters must register far in advance of the election, sometimes even months (in California it is 15 days). Busy working people who are raising a family or traveling for business can’t always manage to find out how to register and navigate the bureaucracy.
In Nevada, voters must register before the fifth Saturday before an election. This year, that deadline is Saturday, Oct. 5. (Nevada voters, this means you’ve got two days to get registered. Good news: The Washoe County Registrar of Voters office in the Washoe County Administration Building, 1001 E. Ninth St., is open until 5 p.m. Saturday.)
EDVR is not a radical idea. It is already in place and working well in Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Idaho—states where voters’ participation numbers are among the highest in the country and that have had no problems with fraud.
“The most dramatic use of EDVR,” according to journalist Marc Cooper, “was probably in Minnesota’s gubernatorial race, when more than 330,000 last-minute, previously unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around independent Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his victory over the two traditional parties.”
It seems clear that same-day voter registration will bring more people to the polls who have been left out, their numbers dominated by the disproportionately higher voting by suburban, elderly white voters, contributing to greater ethnic, class and age inequity.
Cal Tech’s Alvarez, in a report prepared for Demos, an electoral-reform think tank in New York City, concludes that voting could increase by as much as 9 percent in California—which would be 1.9 million voters in a presidential race. That would also translate to a 12 percent increase in voting by young people 18-25, an 11 percent jump in Latino voters, and 7 percent in African-American voters. The biggest increases—as much as 15 percent—would come from people who have recently moved or are new citizens.
So what’s not to like about EDVR? It seems like a reform whose time has come. Interestingly, many political consultants, both Democrats and Republicans, aren’t that enthusiastic about EDVR. They prefer small, predictable voter turnout and often use negative ads to discourage people who then stay home. The influx of new voters brings a whole level of unknowns into the political equation.
The biggest resistance, perhaps below the media radar, comes from those who fear change. In an opinion piece entitled “Problems Lurk in Relaxed Voter System,” the conservative Orange County Register tried to suggest that low voter participation was not a problem.
Another groundless concern that has surfaced is the potential for voter fraud, a charge that has hints of racist overtones directed at immigrants. But Prop. 52 has taken a major step to inoculate it from criticism by requiring stricter penalties for attempted registration fraud. Voters are required to show two valid pieces of ID with name and address. Ironically, voters who register in the current system are not required to show any identification, so same-day registration could actually tighten up the voting process.
Fortunately, Prop. 52 has a very good chance of success. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that the proposal has the support of 52 percent of likely voters. In voter-rich Los Angeles, the approval rates climb to 61 percent.
Californians have been victimized by a range of initiatives in recent years, from 1978’s anti-property-tax Prop. 13, which has in many ways trashed the California educational system, to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187. In most cases, individuals such as Ward Connerly and Ron Unz, along with special interests bankrolled by big business or conservative money, have dominated the statewide proposition process and thwarted efforts at fairness and reconciliation.
Rob McKay’s commitment to EDVR marks the emergence of a new kind of state leader, one who advocates for the large numbers of people who have been left behind instead of promoting the narrow interests of small groups or the rolling back of social progress.
“We have to lower the barriers to voting as much as we can, to return some health and enthusiasm to our democracy,” says McKay. “I thought it was time to draw a line in the sand and say we welcome all eligible Californians to the polls.”
Don Hazen is the executive director of AlterNet.org.