A bill signed Saturday by California Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at improving voter turnout has critics predicting that it will ramp up voter fraud by making it easier for noncitizens to cast ballots.
The New Motor Voter Act automatically registers to vote all eligible voters when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses at the Department of Motor Vehicles instead of requiring them to fill out a form. Those eligible may opt out of voter registration.
The goal is to ease barriers to voting, but election-integrity advocates warn that the measure could inadvertently add millions of illegal voters to the rolls given that California allows undocumented aliens to obtain driver’s licenses.
Anti-fraud groups True the Vote and the Election Integrity Project of California had urged Mr. Brown, a Democrat, to veto the bill, saying it would lead to “‘state sanctioned’ voter fraud” and pointing out that the legislation exempts from penalties ineligible voters who wind up being registered.
“This bill is terrible. It makes an already bad situation much, much worse,” True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht said in a statement.
Ms. Engelbrecht said California’s registration databases “lack the necessary safeguards to keep noncitizens off the voter rolls.”
Eleven states and the District of Columbia now allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, which are different in appearance from those issued to citizens. In California, noncitizen licenses carry the words “Federal Limits Apply” and “not valid for official federal purposes,” according to DriveCA.org.
In California, however, state officials “specifically chose not to make noncitizen license holders searchable in their DMV database,” said True the Vote spokesman Logan Churchwell, who called the newly signed bill “unprecedented.”
The measure, Assembly Bill 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 noncitizens will participate in all California elections going forward,” Election Integrity Project of California President Linda Paine said in a statement.
Supporters, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, argued that the bill is needed to increase flagging voter turnout. In 2014 only 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots even as other states saw increased turnout, while an estimated 6.6 million eligible state voters remain unregistered.
“The New Motor Voter Act will make our democracy stronger by removing a key barrier to voting for millions of California citizens,” Mr. Padilla said in a statement. “Citizens should not be required to opt in to their fundamental right to vote. We do not have to opt in to other rights, such as free speech or due process.”
Although the law goes into effect Jan. 1, the first automatic registrations will not take place until next year, after the state finishes work on its revamped voter-registration database, VoteCal. The upgraded system is expected to be completed in time for the June primary.
California becomes the second state to provide for “opt-out” voter registration, following Oregon, where Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a similar bill in March.
Ms. Brown’s office said in a statement that the bill would “help improve elections and expand voter rights and access in California.”
So far the concept enjoys public support. A poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California released in June found that two-thirds of those surveyed favored the idea of automatic DMV voter registration.
Critics argue that California’s low voter turnout can be attributed to other factors, starting with the state’s impregnable Democratic majority, increasingly rare statewide contested elections and historically safe congressional seats.
Stephen Frank of the conservative California Political Review predicted the latest bill will actually reduce voter turnout by increasing fraud and reducing confidence in the integrity of the voter rolls.
“AB 1461 assures corruption of our elections — our elections will look like those of Mexico and other corrupt nations — and honest people will stop voting since illegal aliens will out vote them,” Mr. Frank said in a website post.