This article originally appeared in the Viet Tide on Jan. 15, 2016. It was written by Ness white and has been updated, edited accordingly.
A new law that has taken effect in California this month could have interesting implications for this year’s local and state elections. It could even impact federal elections if similar or identical laws spread to other states.
The result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of the California State Legislature’s Assembly Bill (A.B.) 1461 in October, the California New Motor Voter Program went into effect on Jan. 1 and is expected to be fully implemented in time for the state’s June primaries. In short, under the program people are automatically registered to vote when they visit the DMV to apply for, renew or change their address on their driver’s licenses. Prior to the law’s implementation, drivers had to opt-in to be registered to vote.
California is the second state to have implemented such a law, following Oregon, and advocates say it will help give more Californians easier access to the voting process. Critics, however, say the law will contribute to voter fraud as people who are not eligible to vote but are eligible to drive could easily slip into the state’s voter rolls.
For example, critics -- including organizations like the conservative-leaning True the Vote and liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union -- have said that non-naturalized immigrants eligible to receive driver’s licenses in California could accidentally be automatically registered to vote, which they are not legally allowed to do. While AB 1461’s language reflects that the California Secretary of State’s Office and DMV will be collaborating to ensure that only people eligible to vote will be registered and state officials will be held responsible for anyone participating in illegal voting, critics do not believe the state has the capabilities to avoid making a mistake.
Additionally, critics believe that the Democratic-controlled state legislature and Democratic governor have pushed the law forward in efforts to further lessen the influence Republicans have in the state. As a result, some critics believe citizens will give up on voting because the process will be corrupted by an influx of ineligible voters.
“[AB 1461] will effectively change the form of governance in California from a Republic whose elected officials are determined by United States citizens and will guarantee that non-citizens will participate in all California elections going forward,” Election Integrity Project of California President Linda Paine has said.
Critics’ fears are not completely unfounded. During the summer of 2014, we reported on the changing political demographics of Orange County, Calif. -- a longtime Republican stronghold and home to largely immigrant communities. For example, in the Viet Tide's July 11 article, “Orange County stands on the cusp of social, political change,” we reported on the Republican Party losing its influence in the county as the ethnic minority population has been increasing in the OC. More specifically, we reported on the OC Vietnamese-American community’s support for Democratic policies lauded by President Barack Obama and Gov. Brown.
In contrast, advocates of the law -- like Democratic state lawmakers -- have said it will help more people have access to voting. It seems to be something of a counteraction against various Republican-backed voter-related laws throughout the country that Democrats have said restrict voter rights for millions of people, particularly racial, ethnic and language minorities, women, younger and elderly individuals, people who are considered disabled and people who have little to no income. These individuals are considered to have less time to register to vote and fewer locations available for them to do so.
“In a free society, the right to vote is fundamental,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has said. “Citizens should not be required to opt in to their fundamental right to vote.
“The New Motor Voter Act will make our democracy stronger by removing a key barrier to voting for millions of California citizens.”
When it comes to voters, it seems the law has support as a Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted last year shows two thirds of Californians surveyed were in favor of automatic voter registration at the DMV.
But what do readers feel, think and believe? Can California’s Motor Voter law increase voter turnout in a state the Pew Charitable Trust Elections Performance Index rated the third-lowest in electoral performance in 2014? Or is the law a setup to give non-citizens an opportunity to participate in the voting process?
Could it be both -- and how might that possibility change conversations about voting and immigration?