After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state–from the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187–California’s notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this fall’s ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. “But that isn’t the problem,” says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new report analyzing EDR. “The problem in American elections isn’t voting machines. The biggest problem is voter registration.”
Voter participation both across the United States and within California has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting new records of anemic turnout. “Worse, the higher your income and the older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting,” says former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez’s study.
Supporters of EDR say it’s the perfect prescription for reversing the downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent. Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR. Similar reforms, like “motor voter,” which allows registration at the time of driver’s-license renewal, have not been as effective. Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new potential voters don’t show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota’s 1998 gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California–where the electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly–an increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. “That’s something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential election,” he says. And that increase would contribute to greater ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay, whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02 legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up EDR-like proposals.
“We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can,” says McKay. “We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw the line in the sand.”