In 1965, only 2% of African Americans were registered to vote in Selma, Ala. Those who tried were asked to name all 67 county judges in the state and faced constant harassment, if not outright brutality.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished such literacy tests for voter registration and enfranchised millions of new voters. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 expanded access to the ballot by requiring the federal government to offer voter registration forms at motor vehicle offices and public assistance agencies.
Despite these landmark laws, a quarter of Americans — 51 million people — remain unregistered to vote. The United States consistently ranks near the bottom of advanced democracies when it comes to turnout among eligible voters.
California now has the opportunity to change this dismal state of affairs. In September, the Legislature passed a bill to automatically register anyone who requests a driver's license or state ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out. (This year, Oregon became the first state to pass such a measure.)
If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill, it could add 6.7 million Californians to the rolls.
Critics argue that the DMV is not ready for such an ambitious experiment, which could open the door to voter fraud from undocumented immigrants who receive driver's licenses in California.
Every Republican in the Legislature save one opposed the bill, and the conservative Election Integrity Project of California claimed it "will guarantee that noncitizens will participate in all California elections going forward."
But Brown should ignore these objections, for several reasons.
First, automatic registration is good policy. The democratic process works better — and is more responsive to its citizenry rather than just the most powerful interests — when more people participate. And at the moment, California's participation rate is shockingly low. The state ranked 38th in voter registration and 41st in voter turnout in 2012. In the 2014 election, California saw its lowest voter turnout since World War II.
Second, practical arguments against the law seem flimsy. If necessary, state officials can adjust it during the implementation phase to make sure it works smoothly. Other democracies, such as Canada, France and Sweden, have automatically registered voters without major problems. The DMV, moreover, already registers voters and screens out noncitizens; the new bill simply shifts the burden of registration from the individual to the state, treating the franchise as a right rather than a privilege.
Finally, automatic voter registration is good politics for the Democratic Party. "Among eligible voters, some 30% of African Americans, 40% of Hispanics, 45% of Asian Americans and 41% of young adults (age 18-24) were not registered to vote in the historic 2008 election," according to the progressive think tank Demos.
These are constituencies that lean Democratic. Unregistered voters would have favored President Obama over Mitt Romney by 73% to 27% if they had voted, according to the American National Election Studies.
Automatic registration could be an important part of Brown's legacy. With one signature, he could oversee the largest voter registration drive in California history, transforming the political landscape.
Brown's decision takes on special significance given the national political context. Recently, GOP-controlled states across the country have passed laws that make it harder to vote. Since the 2010 election, 21 states have put in place voting restrictions, many of which target registration. Kansas, for instance, required proof of citizenship to register; Florida shut down registration drives; and North Carolina repealed same-day voter registration.
If the situation were reversed, a Republican governor would not hesitate to sign a law making it more difficult to cast a ballot, whether for partisan or ideological reasons. Indeed, GOP lawmakers have made no secret of the fact that they want to limit the franchise.
"I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who's willing to walk 200 miles," Florida state Sen. Michael Bennett said in 2011. "This should not be easy."
But Democratic states, with a few exceptions such as Oregon, have not been similarly aggressive in pushing to expand the electorate. If California, the largest and most diverse state in country, adopted automatic voter registration, it would put pressure on blue and purple states to follow suit. Conversely, if Brown were to veto the bill, it would be a huge missed opportunity for the Democratic Party and a major setback to the voting rights cause.
Brown himself made the case for automatic registration when he ran for president in 1992.
"Every citizen in America should have not only the right but the real opportunity to vote," he said at the Democratic National Convention. "And it's the responsibility of government to ensure that by registering every American…. They know how to get our taxes; why don't they get our votes, and the votes of everyone in this country?"
Brown was ahead of his time then, and he can be again now.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for the Nation and the author of "Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America."