California Moves Voter Participation to the Fast Lane; Alabama Headed in the Wrong Direction

A functioning democracy is vital to protecting our air, water, wildlife and lands from pollution and other harms. Without a system that works - everyday Americans' desire for a clean environment would be drowned out by special interests and big polluters - something we already see happening. The first step in increasing the volume of everyday Americans' voices is making sure as many as possible are participating; however, only 36.4% of eligible voters participated in the last year's elections. One way to try and reverse this trend is to make it easier for people to register to vote. Recently, California took a big step in the right direction regarding voter participation, while in stark contrast Alabama seems to be going in the opposite direction.

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(Image Credit:Troye Owens/ Flickr)

Studies have shown that people registered to vote are more likely to participate in elections. In this country that helped create modern democracy, at least 51 million eligible citizens are not registered to vote today. Most of these eligible, but non-registered voters are from poor communities. If you look at the communities hardest hit by pollution - they tend to be these same economically disadvantaged communities who have traditionally been marginalized in our political system. To ensure that these communities can fight against pollution sources in their own backyards, hold their elected leaders accountable and demand that they take action to protect the environment, they need to be better represented in elections.

Some states understand that lack of registration is a problem and are taking action to address it. For example California ranked near the bottom -- 38th -- in eligible voter registration in 2012 with more than 6.6 million eligible, but unregistered voters, which is likely to have contributed to the record low turnout of just 30.9% of eligible voters in the 2014 election there. This recent election served as a punctuation mark on the downward trend of voter participation the state has been grappling with for years.

So it was great to see California Secretary of State Alex Padilla champion and Gov. Brown sign into law a piece of legislation that will automatically register voters when they receive their driver's license. The approach of the New Motor Voter Act flips the traditional opt-in system to an opt-out system. Eligible voters who register to drive will be registered to vote, automatically, unless they actively choose not to do so. NRDC supported the California bill and urged Gov. Brown to sign.

But not all states are following California's democratically inclusive ways. Just recently Alabama announced it was closing 31 part-time DMV offices across the state, making it harder for citizens in those counties to receive the type of ID needed to vote in state elections (thanks to a previously passed voter ID law). Alabama has an 86% voter registration rate as of 2012 - which leaves nearly 500,000 unregistered voters. In addition, the state estimates that around 500,000 registered voters don't yet have a driver's license or a non-driver ID. In total, that's about 1/3rd of the state's 3 million registered voters who aren't participating in the system.

While Alabama's Governor Bentley claims these closures are only a cost-cutting measure, watchdogs were quick to point out that majority African American counties received the largest percentage of closures with 8 of those 11 counties having their part-time offices close compared to only 15 closures in the 55 majority white counties. On the face of it, these closures seemed designed to further restrict voter access.

African Americans in the state are both more likely to be unregistered and more likely to not have driver's licenses. Not surprisingly the counties in this region also have been unable to exercise sufficient political clout to prevent an increase in toxic coal ash dumps and degrading waste water facilities that have ruined their local water quality.

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(Image Credit: Brennan Center for Justice)

Whatever Governor Bentley's intentions, the outcome of these closures will be to make it disproportionately harder for African Americans to vote. That's unacceptable. Recent news that the Governor will allow for the centers to open for one day a month is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough to ensure real access to the electoral system.

These recent developments in California and Alabama are examples of the growing battle over access to voting. If we want to protect our democracy and our environment, more states need to follow California's example and shun Alabama's.

About the Authors

Marc Boom

Director of Federal Affairs, Government Affairs

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