New California Law Automatically Preregisters 16-Year-Olds to Vote When They Get Their Licenses

If you get a driver’s license and are otherwise eligible to vote, young Californians will soon be automatically registered. Photo: Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

One of the most important if underreported reform movements spreading among the states in recent years has been automatic voter registration (AVR) initiatives. Beginning with Oregon in 2015, nine states (plus the District of Columbia) now have laws that automatically enroll eligible voters when they apply for or renew a driver’s license, building on the original 1993 Motor Voter law that made it possible to register to vote at motor-vehicle departments everywhere. It will take a while before the impact of AVR laws is really measurable, but one estimate involving Oregon indicated that it immediately boosted registration by 110,000 and actual voting by 40,000.

California was the second state to enact AVR (though it was only implemented in 2017, and will get its first real test in this election year). But even before then, the state allowed eligible 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, with access to the ballot being triggered when they turned 18.

Now, Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that combines the two reforms by automatically preregistering eligible Californians when they obtain their first driver’s license. Sponsors of the new law estimate that it will add 200,000 voters per year to the state’s rolls.

Younger Americans have long registered and voted at lower rates than their older fellow-citizens. There are many factors that make lower youth turnout a persistent problem, from high personal mobility to low civic connections. But if California’s initiative is the wave of the future, it could make registration one less hurdle, at least for those who wish to drive.

But the spread of AVR, and particularly its application to young voters, is encountering GOP resistance for the natural reason that the marginal voters it most affects are likely to be Democratic-leaning. The implementation of AVR in California has triggered a wave of conservative media disinformation — or “fake news,” if you will — about the law enrolling undocumented immigrants. That’s unlikely to have much effect in blue states like California, but in more politically competitive areas, you can expect to hear BS claims that AVR is a step down the road to “voter fraud” perdition.

California Will Preregister Teens to Vote