Oregon's new take on voting: If you're eligible, you're registered

Oregon on Monday became the first state to automatically register voters. The move 'puts the burden of registration on the state instead of voters,' says Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.

Don Ryan/AP
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) holds up an automatic voter registration bill after signing it on Monday in Salem, Ore. Seventeen years after Oregon decided to become the first state in the nation to hold all elections by mail ballot, it is taking another pioneering step to encourage more people to cast ballots, by automatically registering them to vote.

Oregon is set to become the first state in the nation where virtually every eligible voter will be automatically registered to vote:

Oregon became the first state to automatically register Americans to vote on Monday.

A new bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown “puts the burden of registration on the state instead of voters,” according to the Associated Press.

The law makes it so that anyone over 18 who is not registered to vote in Oregon but who has dealt with the state’s Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division since 2013 will be mailed a ballot 20 days before the next statewide election. Oregon predicts that this new system will bring 300,000 more eligible voters to the polls.

To implement the new law, Oregon’s DMV will share the information it has stored — such as age, address and citizenship — with the state’s secretary of state to automatically register those eligible to vote.

The new law passed the Oregon Senate last week 18-12, with all Republicans and one Democrat voting against it.

Higher turnout in Oregon will likely benefit Democrats – and Republicans worry it will increase voter fraud and costs. ”Simply because it makes us unique or makes us first does not necessarily mean that it actually improves on what we’re doing,” State Senator Jackie Winters (R) told the AP.

This isn’t the first time that Oregon has led the nation in reforms to voting procedures designed to make the process easier. In 1998, the state was the first to move to a system whereby all elections are essentially conducted by mail. Under this system, every voter in the state is mailed a ballot some weeks before Election Day. They can either fill the ballot out at home and drop it in the mail prior to Election Day, or they can drop the ballot off at a local election office by a designated time on Election Day itself. In 2011, neighboring Washington State adopted a similar vote-by-mail system, and Colorado followed suit in 2013. In the 2014 election, Ohio followed a similar procedure, even though the law had not actually changed when the secretary of state, a Republican, decided to mail an application for an absentee ballot to every voter in the state. By all accounts, the Oregon, Washington, and Colorado programs have been successful in increasing voter turnout and have proven to be easy to implement. There’s no reason to expect that the new change to Oregon’s law would not be similarly successful.

There are some caveats to the approach Oregon is taking, of course, but they are ones that seem to be minimal and easy to overcome. Most important, of course, is the fact that not every person who has a driver’s license is eligible to vote, either because of age or because of citizenship status. As in most states, drivers in Oregon can obtain a license before they reach the age of 18 and people who are not United States citizens can receive license provided they have the appropriate paperwork. Obviously, any system that registers people who have “interacted” with the DMV to vote is going to have to ensure that these groups of people don’t get inappropriately registered, but assuming that things like age and citizenship status are properly noted in DMV records that should be easy enough to do.

It will be interesting to see how this system works out as Oregon implements it over the coming years. To a large degree, the process that people have to go through to register to vote has become unnecessarily cumbersome and bureaucratic, so anything that makes that process easier would seem to be a good thing. The anticipation, of course, is that it’s likely to help Democratic candidates but given the fact that Oregon is already very much of a “blue” state, especially in presidential election years, though, it’s unclear whether that will be noticeable. No doubt, some opponents of this idea will raise the spectre of immigrants, legal and illegal, being able to vote as a reason to oppose a reform such as this, but that threat seems to be overblown as long as there is proper record-keeping. The goal of this bill is to get more people to vote, and it’s likely to accomplish that goal, at least in some respect. In the end, that seems like a good idea no matter which political party you support.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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