Baltimore riots live updates: State of emergency declared, schools to be closed
Opinion Op-Ed

To help cure California's voter registration woes, look to the Obamacare website

California ranks 49th in how well it runs elections, a Pew study finds
Opinion: California's pathetic elections infrastructure fuels abysmal voter registration rates

I got turned on to politics when I was 8. It was the 1968 election. The rise and fall of Bobby Kennedy. Then Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey. I had a puzzle of the United States and each piece was a state. As Walter Cronkite announced the returns, I would write each state's electoral votes onto its corresponding puzzle piece. And keep score.

From then on, politics was like an action movie, and I was hooked on the battle between the good guys and the bad guys. Which is why an April Pew Charitable Trusts report on California elections breaks my heart.

In the study, California ranked 49th in the nation on how well we run our elections. We were one of only two states that offered zero — zippo — look-up tools on our state election website to allow voters to easily locate their polling places or check if they're registered. (The secretary of state hopes to remedy part of that soon. Her office is working with Pew and the counties to develop a statewide tool to help voters find their polling places.)

Our pathetic elections infrastructure fuels abysmal voter registration rates. California ranks 45th in the nation in voter registration. There are almost 6.4 million Californians eligible to vote but unregistered, more than the population of 33 states.

As a result, the state's electorate does not reflect who we are or who we're becoming. Whites are nearly two-thirds of California's likely voters but less than half the state's population. Homeowners, people with high incomes and older Californians are most likely to be registered. Unregistered Californians tend to be people of color, younger and less wealthy, and they are our fastest-growing populations. Seventy percent of Californians under 25 identify as nonwhite, according to the U.S. Census.

If the voting population doesn't represent the state, neither will the decisions coming out of Sacramento. It's as simple as that.

But maybe my favorite cliche is true: It's always darkest before the dawn.

Covered California — the state's Obamacare exchange — is mailing voter registration cards to 4 million Californians who shopped on the exchange for insurance. The cards are being sent out in hard-to-miss envelopes, in different languages, and they're postage paid.

The healthcare exchanges, because they offer a public service, are required by the National Voter Registration Act to offer voter registration. It took months of advocacy by groups like the ACLU and others to make it happen, though. The voter registration mailing may be the largest such effort in recent history, according to elections experts. Moving forward, Covered California's insurance shoppers will also be offered voter registration services online, in person and by telephone.

California, it's hoped, will serve as a model for other state exchanges.

Of course, Rush Limbaugh lambasted the efforts as "a massive Democrat voter registration drive." Although his accusation of partisanship is dead wrong, he's right that those getting the registration cards are likely to have made use of Obamacare, and any friend of Obamacare is probably a threat to Limbaugh's interests.

That may explain why state officials have been almost mute about the mailing. Perhaps they're worried their efforts will further inflame opponents of Obamacare. But what is there to be afraid of? That the opponents of Obamacare will spend millions on negative TV ads? Schedule dozens of congressional votes to repeal it? Last time I checked, they were already doing these things.

A slew of laws in other states have passed in recent years whose stealth purpose is to suppress voter turnout. Last week, a judge in Wisconsin struck down one of them, a law that would have required voters to present picture IDs at the polls. Like the Covered California effort, it too was good news for democracy.

But we can do more. For example, why do we vote on Tuesdays? Why not change the law so we can vote on weekends, when people are off work and have time to get to the polls? Democracy is at its best when the most people participate.

My son turned 18 last year. I told him as long as he lives in our house, he has to vote, just like he has to unload the dishwasher. But I hope he and millions more Californians embrace voting as an adventure and a right, not as a chore.

Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president of the California Endowment.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Bring on the candidates — it's election season in California
    Bring on the candidates — it's election season in California

    Voters will have plenty of important decisions to make this year. Let's do our homework.

  • The Clintons lower the bar -- again
    The Clintons lower the bar -- again

    I once had a boss who gave me some great advice, not just for managing people but for judging politicians: You forgive mistakes; you punish patterns. Everybody screws up. But if someone won't learn from his mistakes and try to correct his behavior, then he either doesn't think it was a mistake...

  • Why whole-genome testing hurts more than it helps
    Why whole-genome testing hurts more than it helps

    President Obama proposes to plunk down $215 million on "precision medicine," and the National Institutes of Health and its National Cancer Institute will spend it by sequencing the whole genome of a million or more Americans.

  • Nepal earthquake: We had been warned
    Nepal earthquake: We had been warned

    Images coming out of Nepal's devastating earthquake on Saturday reminded me of another earthquake of similar magnitude that occurred 81 years ago. That earthquake of 1934, or nabbey salko bhuichalo, as it was referred to throughout my childhood in Katmandu, had acquired an air of a legend, delivered...

  • Venice Beach declares war on our infantile obsession with nudity
    Venice Beach declares war on our infantile obsession with nudity

    Not many people are aware of it, and few exercise the right, but it is legal for women to walk around topless in New York City and other cities.  (A bare-chested New Yorker even got $40,000 from the city to settle her lawsuit alleging harassment by the NYPD for her nudity.)

  • Federal government fails basic openness test
    Federal government fails basic openness test

    You’d think that if you were going to get a timely and adequate response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the federal government, it would be from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, which oversees the government’s compliance with FOIA requests.