Californians will be able to register to vote on election day at local polling places and voting centers under legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, a potentially significant step toward boosting turnout in key contests next year.
The new law provides for a significant expansion of so-called conditional voter registration, which allows a new voter to cast a ballot that is counted after eligibility is determined during the 30-day vote-counting period after an election. That process began in last year’s statewide election, but registration was available only in county elections offices. Starting next year, voters can register on election day anywhere ballots are cast.
“This simply enfranchises more people to vote,” said state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), the author of the new law. “The presidential race is one thing, but this is going to make an even bigger difference in turnout for local races.”
Sixteen states, along with the District of Columbia, already allow election day voter registration. Supporters have argued the laws boost turnout, as some voters become energized by political campaigns only after registration deadlines have passed. Prior to Newsom signing the new law, California’s voter registration deadline was 15 days before election day.
California voting rights advocates have been pushing for what’s broadly known as “same-day registration” for years. Lawmakers gave approval to the first phase of the program in 2012, but made it contingent on the completion of a new statewide voter registration database — which was certified in 2016, more than a decade overdue after a federal effort to streamline voter documents following the 2000 presidential election controversy. Elections officials reported about 57,000 Californians used the last-minute registration process in 2018 — a relatively modest amount that could be attributed to the fact that most counties only offered same-day registration at just one elections office.
The new law, Senate Bill 72, will change that. In counties with neighborhood polling places, voters in the March primary and November general elections will be given a ballot for their precinct or — in the event that’s not possible — told that their vote will be counted only in races for which they are eligible.
Fifteen counties, including Los Angeles, will conduct next year’s election under a 2016 law that uses a limited number of multi-purpose “vote centers” instead of polling places. In those counties, new voters should be able to have ballots printed that match the precinct in which they are registered.
In many cases, the need for additional review of a new voter’s eligibility will require the use of a provisional ballot, which is set aside until elections officials make a final determination. The vast majority of those ballots were ultimately counted in recent elections.
Newsom’s decision to embrace SB 72 was one of several election-related bills he signed into law Tuesday. They include a mandate that vote-by-mail ballots be sent out no later than 29 days before an election, additional efforts to notify voters to sign their absentee ballot if they forget and approval for voters to use handheld electronic devices at a polling place, ostensibly to ensure they can review election information as needed.
The option to register on election day also provides another service: It allows a voter to change party preference at the last minute. That could alleviate the complaints lodged by some voters in 2016 who thought they were unaffiliated independent voters and thus eligible to vote in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary.
Those voters were, in fact, mistakenly registered with the American Independent Party, confusion documented in a 2016 Los Angeles Times investigation. Democratic Party rules stated AIP voters could not request a ballot in that year’s race between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Under the law signed on Tuesday, any voter can re-register on election day.
“By making election day registration available at every polling site in the state, SB 72 will increase voter engagement for eligible voters who are eager to cast a vote, but who were unable to register or update their registration by the deadline,” said Raúl Macías, a voting rights advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union.
As many as six million Californians are eligible to vote but not registered. Advocates believe the new law could significantly reduce that number, particularly as more people realize they can make the decision at the last minute.