Oregon May Lead The Way On Automatic Voter Registration

Oregon may soon begin what is arguably the most innovative, progressive voting effort in the nation: automatic voter registration.

Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) is leading a new effort — the first of its kind in the nation — to make registration as simple as possible in the Beaver State. Currently, voting for nearly every American is a two-step process: one must register to vote before actually voting. Automatically registering voters would streamline the matter, preventing many Oregonians who forgot or were unable to register to still cast a ballot.

Governing has more on how Brown’s idea would work:

Brown’s plan, introduced in the state House last month, would allow Oregon to automatically register new voters at the time they apply for a driver’s license. Those new voters would initially be registered as unaffiliated with any political party. At a later date, they’d receive a postcard by mail allowing them to choose a party affiliation or opt out of voter registration altogether, should they desire. The state’s House Rules Committee held a hearing on the legislation last month, and Brown expects another one in the coming weeks.

In some states, the DMV asks people applying for driver’s licenses if they want to register to vote. If they say yes, they fill out a form on the spot indicating that choice, and they get registered. But the Oregon plan is different. About 500,000 eligible voters who aren’t registered — but are already in the DMV database — would automatically become registered in a process that would begin Jan. 1, 2014. Residents would automatically get registered when they get new driver’s licenses, and their voter registration would be updated when they update or renew those licenses.

Under current Oregon law, residents must register (or update their registration) at least 25 days before the election or be shut out of the political process. Deadlines like these and other associated hurdles can prevent many people from registering to vote. There are currently more than 600,000 Oregonians who are eligible to vote but have not registered.

Though voting rights advocates like the League of Women Voters of Oregon laud Brown’s idea, Republicans are skeptical that it should be easier to vote. Oregon Republican Party executive director Greg Leo said that making registration easier would lead to a less-informed electorate. “We make it so easy for people to participate that I worry they won’t take the time to be an informed voter and to really study the issues,” Leo said.

Oregon has a history of innovation on voting rights. In 1998, it became the first state to move to a vote-by-mail system; the state of Washington has since followed their lead.