California Leads the Nation in Promoting Voter Access

September 25, 2012 1:30 pm

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ACLU Applauds Governor’s Signing of SB 35; Could Serve as Model for Other States

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California stands alone in the nation in dramatically increasing—rather than suppressing—opportunities for voter registration among low-income voters, students and persons with disabilities with yesterday’s signing by Governor Jerry Brown of SB 35, Senator Alex Padilla’s bill to help qualified adults register to vote.

Voting rights advocates, including the ACLU of California, are applauding Sen. Padilla and Governor Brown for finalizing SB 35, which will designate California’s new Health Benefit Exchange—the program that California created to implement the Affordable Care Act—as a voter registration agency, opening the door for millions of Californians to be offered the opportunity to register to vote. The bill also requires existing voter registration agencies to incorporate the new online voter registration tool into their online application processes. Together, the Health Benefit Exchange and these agencies serve more than seven million Californians each year. This is the first voluntary expansion of voter registration agencies in California in 18 years.

“With the Governor’s signature, California becomes the first state in the nation to offer voter registration through implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” said the bill’s author, Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima). “This continues our commitment to maximizing voter registration and participation. Last week, California launched a new on-line voter registration system and more than 20,000 Californians registered to vote in the first 24 hours alone. With SB 35, we further expand voter registration opportunities that will increase participation and strengthen our democracy.”

SB 35 also requires the Secretary of State to translate the new online registration tool into eight additional languages for which counties are required to provide voting materials pursuant to the federal Voting Rights Act, giving access to one million eligible Asian Americans with limited English proficiency.

“This is a great day to be a Californian, with our state expanding access to the electoral process when so many other states are restricting the right to vote,” said Lori Shellenberger, civic engagement attorney for the ACLU of California. “It is exciting to see online voter registration offered to people seeking health care coverage and other services so that no citizen is deprived of the opportunity to register to vote.”

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, each state is required to establish procedures to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote. The Act requires public assistance offices and state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities to offer voter registration services to applicants and clients at every agency and office in the state. But in California, voter registration at these agencies has rapidly declined, down 81% in 2011 from 1996, despite record levels of applications at public assistance programs. California’s voter registration currently ranks 45th out of 50 states.

San Diego’s Registrar of Voters, Deborah Seiler, is also a strong supporter of efforts to expand voter registration in the county. “The California Association of Clerks and Election Officials proudly supported SB 35. We look forward to working with the Health Benefit Exchange and the Secretary of State’s office to offer online voter registration services,” Seiler said. “We are pleased that under SB 35, online voter registration will be translated into all the languages counties are required to offer to their voters.

By modernizing implementation of the NVRA in California, SB 35 will serve as a model for other states looking to increase access to participation in the electoral process.

In another dramatic move placing California at the forefront of the nation for voter access, the Governor also signed a bill Monday making it easier for Californians to vote by permitting same-day voter registration. In the Governor’s signing statement, he said, “Voting, the sacred right of every citizen—should be simple and convenient. While other states try to restrict voters with new laws that burden the process, California allows voters to register online—and even on Election Day.” On the eve of National Voter Registration Day, Governor Brown signed a slew of election-related bills.

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