SACRAMENTO — Bemoaning a steady decrease in voter turnout, the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly elections committees Wednesday proposed a package of legislation aimed at making it easier for Californians to sign up and vote, including an Election Day registration feature.
The lawmakers voiced alarm at the dramatically low turnout of only 59.3% of registered voters in last November's election, the lowest since 1942, when California GIs went off to war. Additionally, only 43.4% of all Californians who were eligible to register and vote actually wound up casting ballots, meaning that almost 10 million eligible people did not participate in the election process.
Voter turnout has declined steeply over the last two decades--from a high of 85.5% of those registered in 1966 when Ronald Reagan was elected governor to last year's disappointing showing when Gov. George Deukmejian won a second term.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal in the legislative package would enable a citizen to register to vote on the same day as the general election, a practice first established in Wisconsin in 1974. In California, the registration deadline is 29 days before an election.
A second major bill would keep polling precincts open until 10 p.m., two hours past the current closing time.
Sen. Milton Marks of San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee who also is chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, insisted that the legislative package is strictly nonpartisan. However, all 10 bills involved are sponsored by Democrats.
"Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on non-voters," Marks insisted, despite some "superficial analyses" that claim a bigger vote turnout would help Democrats because "non-voters are generally poor non-whites."
He cited demographic comparisons of voters and non-voters at the last general election. The figures indicated that 59% of non-voters were white and that 41% had incomes in excess of $30,000 a year.
However, Marks did not cite figures from the same study showing that whites and affluent people voted in high proportions compared to the rest of the population. For instance, 84% of voters were white, 28% earned $50,000 or more and 38% were college graduates.
Republicans in California long have opposed Election Day registration, contending it would increase opportunity for fraud. Privately, however, they acknowledge that a low turnout tends to help the GOP. A Democratic Election Day registration bill was last introduced in the Assembly six years ago and never received a committee hearing.
Assembly Republican leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, an opponent of Election Day registration, said that under such a system it would be "virtually impossible to verify whether the voter is who he says he is. Voters could literally ride buses around from precinct to precinct."
The Election Day registration bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego), chairman of the Assembly Elections Committee, who insisted that there "is no reason to believe that in-person registering on Election Day offers any more opportunity for fraud than post card or mail registration."
Marks authored the bill to keep the polls open an extra two hours. He said it would help the commuting driver who cannot get to the polls on time "simply because he or she gets stuck on the (San Francisco-Oakland) Bay Bridge or the Santa Monica Freeway."
Linked to Licensing
Other legislation, by Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Oakland), would enable Californians to register to vote when they apply for a driver's license. He said six other states operate a similar program and have experienced a "dramatic increase" in voter registration. A similar Bates bill previously was vetoed by Deukmejian.
Another bill would give state workers the day off with pay if they helped operate voting places on Election Day. Marks said local officials complain that it is difficult to recruit enough able poll workers.
Other bills would require all state and local government agencies to provide voter registration cards at offices where the public regularly conducts business; emphasize in junior and senior high schools the importance of voting, and make state government buildings available for use as polling places.
Hard to Fight Apathy
The lawmakers agreed that simply making registration and voting more convenient would not necessarily assure a bigger turnout. Voter apathy, they noted, constitutes a major discouragement. They also said that negative campaigning seemed to repel some potential voters last year.
"I think it's a combination of the negative campaigns plus the fact that a lot of people don't see a great deal of hope and they don't see any real programmatic differences between the various candidates," Bates said. "As a consequence, they feel that their vote doesn't make any difference."
As for purging the voter rolls of so-called "deadwood," long a Republican goal, Chacon said his committee would give such a bill a fair hearing. Secretary of State March Fong Eu, a Democrat, has estimated that about 10% of the voters carried on the registration rolls don't go to the polls or have died and their names should be removed.
Most such voters are believed to be Democrats who because they died or moved did not vote in the most recent general election. Local election officers would send the non-voters a card warning that their registration will be purged unless the card is returned.
If the card is returned to the local election officer as undeliverable, the name is purged. If not, the name remains on the rolls as an active voter. Counting the deadwood voters gives an inaccurate picture of voter turnout and party registration and, as Eu has warned, increases the possibility of election fraud.