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STATE LAWMAKERS QUIETLY PASS VOTER PROTECTION BILL

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Same day voter registration to start in 2016

Chris Levister

With the national spotlight on the confusion and chaos surrounding voter ID laws trained on states like Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Florida (Since 2010, 10 states passed voter ID laws), California has been mostly in the shadows on the heated debate despite its large undocumented immigrant population. But mum’s the word doesn’t mean head in the sand. As voter suppression laws spread across the country, voting rights advocates can take heart: the biggest state in the nation is on the cusp of implementing a major voter protection initiative. Election Day Registration (EDR), which allows citizens to register up to and on Election Day, passed the California State Senate in August by a party-line vote of 23-13. AB 1436 had passed the State Assembly in May 47-26.

The bill would let eligible voters register and vote at a county elections office on Election Day and during the two weeks leading up to it. Those late registrants would complete a conditional registration form and cast a provisional ballot. Their votes would be counted if elections officials determine their registration to be valid during the 30-day canvas period that follows every election. AB 1436 also increases the fine for voter fraud to $50,000, one of the highest penalties in the country.

Under current law, Californians cannot register to vote in the final two weeks before an election, just as many Americans are beginning to tune in. EDR will eliminate that deadline, ensuring that no citizen is disenfranchised because he or she wasn’t registered beforehand. "The really heartbreaking fact of the matter is that a lot of the excitement kicks in about two weeks before Election Day. But by then it's too late, and a lot of people are left sitting on the sidelines," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "If we can engage people when they're excited, we have an opportunity to create a lifelong voter."

AB 1436 authored, by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles would not take effect until Jan. 1 of the year after a database called Vote-Cal, now being developed, becomes operational. Such a database, required by the federal government of every state, would incorporate the voter rolls of all 58 counties in the state and be linked with data from other government agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security Administration. Ten states allow for same-day voter registration, and Feuer says all but one of those states had a higher voter-participation rate than California in the November 2010 elections. By using the database, he said elections officials would be able to "determine instantaneously if a voter is registered elsewhere" and whether a voter has cast a ballot in another county. "Right now, the counties operate in a vacuum," said Alexander, whose nonprofit has not taken a position on AB 1436.

The statewide database would address concerns of some critics that same-day registration could enable some voters to move about the state on Election Day, casting ballots in multiple counties. The Secretary of State's Office, which ended the original contract to develop the database, is now seeking bids from other vendors. The database potentially could be operational in 2015. If the current bill became law, same-day registration in California would be in effect for the 2016 presidential election.

This won’t just benefit slackers. Historically-disenfranchised citizens like minorities and poorer Americans, will particularly benefit from EDR. On average, studies have found that EDR boosts voter turnout by seven percentage points. Common Cause’s Phillip Ung told ThinkProgress he “expects voter turnout to increase by the hundreds of thousands” solely as a result of EDR. Antoinnae Comeaux of the University of California Student Association said that same-day registration would be a boon to college students, who often fail to register in time at their new residences.

"Thousands of college students miss the deadline as they constantly move throughout the year for academic or financial reasons," she said. The current deadline to register to vote is 15 days before an election.

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