Oregon’s Automatic Registration is Law: Now What?


[Image courtesy of AP via washingtonpost]

Earlier this week, Oregon’s new automatic registration bill became law with the signature of its longtime champion, Governor (and former Secretary of State) Kate Brown. The law has gotten lots of attention – predominantly from progressives, as in this Plum Line post in the Washington Post from the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman – as a game-changer for elections and a potential model for other states and localities to follow.

But what happens next? I think there are three different stories to watch:

1. Implementation. In many ways, Oregon’s new law isn’t that different from other states’ efforts to expand registration by reaching out to eligible but unregistered individuals. The twist, of course, is that unlike other states – where unregistered voters are invited to register online or by hand – Oregon will automatically add those voters to the rolls and give them a pre-set amount of time to opt out. NPR’s Domenico Montanaro has more:

The “opt out” provision is key to the law. If someone does not want to be signed up, they have 21 days to let the state know. Many other states offer the chance to register to vote when someone renews their license or gets a state identification card, but those citizens have to opt in.

What we don’t yet know is how many of the 300,000 estimated automatic registrants will choose to opt out, though there is some small precedent from our neighbor to the north: The University of Florida’s Michael McDonald told NPR that “when Canada implemented a similar system in the 1990s, only 1 to 2 percent of people opted out.”

We also don’t know how well the state and counties will manage this new data flow; as we’ve seen in other states, such “simple” changes are usually anything but.

2. Turnout. Much of the anticipation and excitement surrounding the new Oregon law comes from the assumption that it will boost turnout. Again, McDonald is somewhat skeptical:

“It’s likely we’re going to see more people on the voter registration rolls,” McDonald said, noting that some states with same-day registration have seen increases of 3 to 5 percent.

But he cautioned that “the effect might not be as dramatic in presidentials” when there is “no need for the reminder” to vote. The real impact might be on state and local elections, when voters previously were receiving little to no information …

“Canada moved to universal voter registration, and turnout dropped,” McDonald noted. “Maybe it would have dropped further, but this [laws like Oregon’s] is no guarantee.”

Hunter Schwartz of the Washington Post’s Fix blog took his own look:

But what will that mean for elections in the state? Comparing the percentage of people in Oregon who are eligible to register, who have registered and who turned out to vote in its most recent election with comparable information in Maine (the state with the highest voter turnout), Alabama (one of several states criticized for its voter ID laws), and Australia (where voting is required and non-voting is penalized) shows what kind of impact it might have …

One thing that’s for sure is threatening to fine people for not voting, as in Australia, ups your numbers. Still, Maine has a higher percentage of registered voters than Australia. Out of the 1,041,475 people who could be registered there, 989,330 are, according to the Maine secretary of state’s office, and 58 percent of them showed up at the polls in November.

And while Alabama has a higher percentage of eligible voters registered than Oregon, its turnout drops in comparison. Turns out more people vote if you mail them their ballot than if they have to go to a polling place and bring IDs.

Oregon estimates the bill will add 300,000 new voters to its rolls. According to the state DMV, there are 876,086 more drivers with licenses in the state than registered voters, however, not all of those drivers may be eligible and some may opt out of being registered. Adding 300,000 voters to its rolls would increase the percentage of eligible voters who are registered to 83 percent, higher than Alabama.

We won’t have to wait too long to see what the increase in voters means for Oregon since the state has some elections this year, and more in 2016.

Of course, the effect on turnout will depend somewhat on your definition of the term. If, like the Fix’s Schwartz, your definition is percentage voting of eligible population, then turnout will likely increase because of the greater number of people voting. If, on the other hand, you look at the percentage voting of registered voters, turnout will likely go DOWN given that the opt-out requirements will probably add proportionally more non-voting than voting registrants. Keep that in mind when people start to debate the impact of the new law.

[FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten has an even more detailed but equally skeptical take here – and suggests that contrary to conventional wisdom, Republicans could actually benefit, citing research suggesting “while there might be more unregistered Democrats, the unregistered Republicans are more likely to vote once registered.”]

3. Fraud. Finally, there is the question of whether the combination of Oregon’s all-vote-by-mail system and automatic registration will lead to more fraud. The law’s supporters don’t think so, but at least one national figure with a penchant for worrying about fraud does: Kansas SoS Kris Kobach, who told the Wichita Eagle that

Oregon’s automatic registration increases the likelihood of illegal immigrants being registered by mistake and creates the possibility of duplicate registration for people who change addresses or spell their names differently on their driver’s license than on their voter registration.

“I just think it’s a virtual certainty that they will see hundreds of thousands of people mailed two or more ballots, and that can be a very tempting situation where some people may succumb to the temptation to fill out both ballots and vote twice,” Kobach said.

Technically, Kobach’s citizenship concern shouldn’t be an issue – the state asks for citizenship information as part of the licensing process at DMV, whose list will be used for registration – but that doesn’t mean the fraud argument won’t get a long and loud airing in Oregon and elsewhere.

Kobach had some other thoughts that you can bet will get picked up in other states if and when the idea of automatic registration gets discussed:

The Oregon law puts the burden of registering a person to vote on the state rather than on the individual. Kobach said this responsibility should remain with the individual.

“With many rights, there is an element of personal effort and personal decision-making,” Kobach said. “With the right to vote, courts have ruled, that includes the right not to vote. It’s a part of your right not to do that, just like with the right to bear arms, there’s the right not to own a weapon.”

These views are especially noteworthy given the fact that not one Republican in Oregon’s Legislature voted for the automatic registration bill; if anything goes wrong with the process (including implementation problems or nonexistent/disappointing turnout effects) you can be certain these arguments will get more play.

For now, it’s all in the future – but the future of Oregon’s new automatic registration law promises to be one to watch.

Stay tuned!

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