California Lawmaker Touts Mandatory Voting Law to Boost Turnout

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Taking a cue from countries like Australia and Belgium, a California lawmaker looking to boost voter turnout is pushing legislation that would force all registered voters to return ballots in future elections.

Under the proposal by Assemblyman Marc Levine, California would become the first state to require registered voters to return their ballots – even if incomplete or blank – in all future elections or face potential fines.

(AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Levine, D-Marin County, says Assembly Bill 2070 bill would align the Golden State with dozens of other countries that use mandatory ballot-casting laws.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport – it requires the active participation of all its citizens,” Levine said in a statement. “California is a national leader on expanding voting rights to its citizens. Those rights come with a responsibility by registered voters to cast their ballot and make sure that their voice is heard by their government.”

Compulsory voting laws have been in place in a variety of countries for decades, including Australia, where people over the age of 18 have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924. Since the switch to so-called compulsory voting, turnout for Australia’s federal elections has never dropped below 91%.

Supporters claim the system not only increases turnout, it prompts a more informed electorate by spurring otherwise disinterested voters into researching candidates and issues. Major elections are held on Saturdays in Australia and while those that skip out often receive small fines, the law allows them to appeal.

Countries that enforce compulsory voting include Australia, Argentina, Belgium and Peru. Others that employ the system but don’t enforce it include Costa Rica, Egypt and Mexico.

Critics argue that mandatory voting infringes on civil liberties, waters down the electorate and is burdensome.

While turnout in California for the 2018 midterm elections was the best in 36 years at 64% and turnout for the 2016 presidential election was 75%, Levine wants even higher participation.

“This is not a time to be complacent at the ballot box. My AB 2070 will ensure that the voices of all California voters are heard loud and clear,” Levine said.

California Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, is skeptical of the bill and says it could have the opposite effect of decreasing voter participation.

“When marking a ballot is a legal requirement, akin to stopping at a red light, it deprives participation of meaning and alienates ordinary citizens from politics even more,” Kiley tweeted.

The First Amendment Coalition said it was still analyzing the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California declined to comment.

The California Voter Foundation, which has been championing state voter reforms since 1994, says it wasn’t consulted on AB 2070 and hasn’t taken a position on it.

“It’s an idea that’s been floated around before and could provoke discussion, so that’s a good thing,” said foundation president Kim Alexander.

Levine’s proposal doesn’t cite specific penalties for voting scofflaws but grants the California Secretary of State the authority to develop and enforce civil penalties. Levine’s office says penalties would be “no more than a small fine.”

The legislation is eligible to be heard by its first committee in March.

California has passed a bevy of measures over the last decade intended to prop often sluggish voter participation numbers.

Counties are now allowed to automatically send each registered voter a ballot in the mail, and voters can return their ballots without postage stamps. The state also recently launched a program that registers eligible Californians when they apply for a driver’s license.

Last year Gov. Gavin Newsom approved legislation opening same-day registration at all polling sites, as well as a proposal that requires counties to contact voters that submitted ballots without signatures and try to get the error corrected, and the votes counted.

California primary voters hit the polls on March 3. Counties began mailing out ballots on Monday.

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