Oregon Moving Toward “Automatic” Voter Registration

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With many states moving forward on ways to expand access online and otherwise to voter registration, Oregon is prepared to go one step further and simply add hundreds of thousands of eligible Oregonians to the voter rolls. Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian has more:

Secretary of State Kate Brown on Monday pitched a new automatic voter registration plan to legislators that she says would add about 300,000 voters to the rolls next year.

Brown, telling the House Rules Committee that her “goal is to put a ballot in the hand of virtually every eligible Oregonian,” made several changes aimed at satisfying concerns raised when she first pushed the proposal in 2013.

The Democratic secretary of state said her new measure, House Bill 2177, gives prospective voters a longer time to opt out of being registered, and provides more privacy protections for minors registered in preparation for their 18th birthday. In addition, Brown said her agency would more tightly limit the age of driver’s license data it used to register voters.

The proposed changes would shrink the number of likely new voters but would still capture a big chunk of individuals not currently registered:

[Brown said] the new bill would add an estimated 300,000 voters, compared with about 500,000 who would have been added under the 2013 bill.

Brown’s office last year estimated there are about 800,000 Oregonians eligible to vote but not registered. Just under 2.2 million were registered in the last election.

Here’s how it would work – which is getting a close look since chances of passage have improved as a result of the 2014 elections:

Under Brown’s proposal, her office would gather driver’s license data from Driver and Motor Vehicle Services and use that information to register voters.

Prospective voters would be notified and given at least three weeks to decide whether they wanted to opt out of registering — or if they wanted to register in a particular party. Otherwise, they would be added to the voter rolls as an unaffiliated voter.

Brown said her office would use DMV data going back to 2013 and that it includes information on whether the individual is a citizen and thus eligible to vote.

The bill received a hearing on the first day of the legislative session, and Democratic lawmakers have talked about moving quickly on the measure.

Two years ago, the bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote and failed in the Senate by one vote. This time, the Democrats appear to have the needed votes since they gained two more seats in the Senate.

Not surprisingly, Republican lawmakers whose doubts helped stop the plan two years ago still aren’t convinced:

Brown’s proposal still ran into strong opposition from Republicans, who suggested that there is no real need for the measure and who have feared that Democrats are trying to pad their political advantage in the state.

House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said Oregon already has low barriers to voting. He suggested that people who don’t want to participate — including some who have a religious objection to voting – shouldn’t have to tell the state not to register them.

Rep. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton, said the state shouldn’t go ahead with the measure until the state solves its problems in properly handling personal data — a not-so-veiled reference to the state’s problems with several information technology projects.

Left unsaid at the hearing were the partisan concerns about how a big boost in voter registration would affect elections in the state.

It isn’t clear, however, that the plan would have a partisan tilt – at least not in comparison to existing efforts to enroll the unregistered:

Democratic-leaning groups generally put more resources into voter registration campaigns in the state, saying they need to work harder to make sure younger and poorer voters are registered — particularly because they tend to move more often. This bill would relieve them of much of that burden and allow them to focus more on persuading voters and getting them to return a ballot.

Brown said those drives are largely aimed at urban voters, while her bill would pick up prospective voters throughout the state.

“This proposal is completely agnostic,” she said. “It treats everybody the same.”

That sentiment was echoed by a local election official who drew a parallel between voting and other constitutional rights:

Linn County Clerk Steve Druckenmiller, describing himself as a “very conservative man,” told [the committee] that he found it wrong to put any unnecessary barriers in the way of the right to vote, comparing it to restrictions on the right to bear arms.

“People went and died for my right to vote,” said Druckenmiller. “They didn’t die for my right to register to vote.”

This should be a very interesting debate; while it isn’t clear if this proposal would move in any other state – Oregon being the only state where Democrats increased their margins after 2014 – it’s still a fascinating test case for realigning the responsibility for voter registration. Even if it passes and is signed into law, however, there will be some implementation challenges which will be watched closely by a skeptical legislative minority.

Stay tuned.

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