A voter marks her ballot while voting in the California primary in Sacramento,… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
While dozens of states, mostly those dominated by Republican legislatures and governors, have spent the past few years devising ways to suppress votes in the guise of cracking down on voter fraud, California has embarked on the opposite course — making voting in California easier and more consequential. That trend will continue in the coming months as a result of innovation and smart use of technology, and it will receive yet another boost should the governor sign a bill, AB 1436, which would allow voters to register up to and on election day.
These are welcome developments that address the real crisis in contemporary American politics — voter disinterest. Turnout for many elections, especially at the state and local levels, is often alarmingly low. That's bad for society. Low turnout empowers certain interest and demographic groups and creates elected officials beholden to those groups. Organized labor, for instance, has outsize influence in part because its members vote; the same is true for the elderly.
But low turnout also is, in a sense, a rational response to broken politics. In recent decades, political gerrymandering and term limits combined to make most races for the Legislature non-competitive and rendered most districts so lopsided in their politics that they were out of reach of one party or the other.
Happily, those problems are being addressed. California historically has been a state that has placed unusual confidence in voters. And that tradition, launched by the Progressives early in the 20th century, has led to reforms intended to make races more competitive and districts less politicized. More recently, technological progress and its creative application to the ballot box also are removing some of the obstacles to voting.
First there were the Schwarzenegger-era reforms, which may stand as the former governor's most important legacy. In a series of elections, California voters eliminated party primaries and moved to a system in which the top two finishers of the first round of elections face off in a second round, no matter what their party affiliations. Voters also moved the job of drawing district lines for state Assembly and Senate seats away from the Legislature and to a nonpartisan commission. Finally, they extended that commission's authority and the top-two primary rule to include Congressional races as well. Those reforms were intended to tackle the lopsidedness of one-party districts, and they are just beginning to be felt in the state's politics. Moreover, California voters earlier this year amended the term limits that apply to state legislators, allowing members of the Assembly and Senate to serve 12 years in either chamber.
Now comes online voter registration. For decades, the process of registering to vote in California has been done manually. A prospective voter picks up a registration form at a local library or other distribution point, fills out the information and mails it in. A government worker checks the information and registers the voter. That can take weeks. The Internet, however, has compressed that process into minutes. A would-be California voter today can fill out the form online, enter verifying information (the last four digits of his Social Security number or his California driver's license) and be registered a few seconds later.
One more reform sits on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk and deserves his signature. Introduced by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), AB 1436 would allow so-called same-day registration. The bill is a logical extension of online registration: If it only takes a few seconds to confirm the information of the would-be voter, why set a registration deadline two weeks prior to an election? If approved, Feuer's bill would go into effect once California adopts new safeguards to prevent anyone from voting at more than one polling place.
Some will object that rapid registration opens new opportunities for fraud. In fact, the vulnerability of these systems to fraud is so minuscule as to be irrelevant. Yes, a husband might know his wife's Social Security number and register her online without her knowledge. Assuming that she did not try to register herself (and assuming it didn't strike a poll worker as odd to find a man with a woman's name asking for a ballot), he might succeed in securing two votes on election day. But that's a lot of effort to gain one extra vote, and the penalties for getting caught remain severe, presumably discouraging other, more creative attempts to defraud the system. Evidence of voter fraud remains sketchy, and claims of it have been vastly exaggerated for the specific purpose of erecting obstacles that tend to suppress participation by poorer people, who are less likely to carry photo identification and — no coincidence — more likely to vote for Democrats.
The real crisis in American elections is that voters participate too little, not that they cheat to participate too much. California is demonstrating leadership in addressing the genuine issues.