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California moving toward automatic voter registration

California looks set to become the latest state to adopt automatic voter registration, expanding access to the ballot for millions.
Voters cast their ballots for the midterm elections on Nov. 2, 2010 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty)
Voters cast their ballots for the midterm elections on Nov. 2, 2010 in Los Angeles, Calif.

The nation’s largest state may be about to make it much easier to register and vote.

California’s Senate passed a bill Thursday by a 24-15 vote that would automatically register to vote anyone who gets or renews a driver’s license, unless they chose to opt out. The state Assembly already passed a similar bill in June. If the Senate version passes an Assembly vote, as expected, the measure would head to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a public position on the bill, and a spokesman for his office declined to comment on pending legislation. But in 2012 he signed legislation allowing Californians to register and vote on the same day.

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Automatic voter registration is fast gaining traction in blue states as a way to expand access to voting, after record low turnout in last fall’s midterms. In March, Oregon became the first state to enact the reform, prompting legislators in 17 states, plus the District of Columbia and both houses of the U.S. Congress, to introduce similar bills. It gained further momentum in June when Hillary Clinton backed the idea in a major campaign speech on voting rights.

New Jersey lawmakers have passed an automatic voter registration bill, but Gov. Chris Christie, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, looks unlikely to sign it.  "I don't think that people ought to be automatically registered to vote," Christie said in June. "Is it really too much to ask to ask someone to fill out a form?"

In California, where Secretary of State Alex Padilla played a major role in pushing for the bill, nearly 7 million people are eligible to vote but not registered. In Los Angeles’s March election, just 10% of eligible voters went to the polls. That’s left political leaders and good government advocates looking for ways to boost turnout.

“Voter registration still stands as a significant impediment to voter participation in our state,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat and a supporter of the bill.

Every Senate Republican who voted opposed the bill. Sen. Jeff Stone said it would “further undermine the integrity of our election system”—though there’s little evidence that automatic registration would increase fraud.