By: Maria Callahan
On October 8, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill No. 72, an act to amend Section 2170 of the Elections Code. This bill requires that county elections officials offer conditional voter registration and provisional voting at all satellite offices and all polling places in California. Under the prior existing law, an otherwise qualified elector was authorized to register to vote, complete a conditional voter registration, or cast a provisional ballot during either the 14 days preceding an election or on election day, as prescribed by each jurisdiction.
Because the bill specifically requires rather than permits same day registration, its passage creates a state-mandated local program. As noted in the legislation, the California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies for certain costs mandated by the state. If the Commission on State Mandates determines that the bill contains costs mandated by the state, reimbursement is required.
San Diego County’s Registrar of Voters Michael Vu, the county’s top elections official, expressed concern regarding costs associated with the new legislation. Specifically, Vu was worried that the increased rush of voters registering on Election Day would result in a large number of provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. These ballots ensure that a voter is not excluded from the voting process due to an administrative error that results in uncertainty about that voter’s eligibility. For example, if the voter’s name is not on the voter rolls, or if the voter’s identification is unavailable, an election official is required to offer the voter a provisional ballot. This ballot is kept separate from the regular ballots and is then investigated by local election officials after the election. The additional investigation and administrative work required to handle provisional ballots can put an increased financial burden on jurisdictions.
To mitigate his concern regarding the increase of provisional ballots, Vu proposed that San Diego County open five satellite voting centers. These centers would be staffed with trained county workers to help people confirm their voter eligibility and ensure that they are registered in the correct jurisdiction, among other services typically offered at the Registrar of Voters office. Vu said that the county would then employ a communications push telling people who want to register on Election Day to do so at the satellite centers. The intent of this plan is to minimize the number of provisional ballots in San Diego county and to keep lines shorter for voters who are already registered. The San Diego Board of Supervisors approved Vu’s proposal for early voting satellite locations on November 4, 2019.
With this legislation, California became the 21st state, plus the District of Columbia, to allow Election Day voter registration. According to research conducted by Dēmos and Project Vote, Same-Day Registration increases voter participation. There are currently 5.5 million eligible voters in California who are not registered. This bill will likely reduce that number. Further, a disproportionate number of these unregistered voters are young, low-income, have a disability, have limited English proficiency, or are people of color. The accessibility provided by same day registration could bridge the gap between eligibility and registration for people in these communities.
Additionally, the bill will allow voters to change party preference on Election Day. This will reduce voter confusion especially as it applies to presidential primary elections. During the 2016 Democratic Party’s presidential primary, a number of California voters were registered with the American Independent Party but thought they were unaffiliated independent voters. On the day of the primary, these voters could not request a ballot for the Democratic Party. Under the new legislation, these voters can re-register on election day.
Registrar Vu told inewsource, “We want people, our citizens, to participate in each and every election and be eligible, but it has to be also equally balanced out with the administrative tasks, the readiness of the system that is going to be implemented.” With its enactment, Senate Bill No. 72 certainly lowers barriers to voter registration in California. How each county will address the associated costs and administrative hurdles remains to be seen.