Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is on a mission to make voter registration easier in her state than anywhere else in the country. So easy, in fact, it’s automatic.
Brown, now in her second term, is pushing for legislation that would instantly register voters based on information gleaned from their DMV records. The plan would make Oregon the only state in the country to automatically register voters.
"I’m really passionate about this issue,” says Brown, who added that registration should not keep people from participating in their "fundamental right" to vote.
Brown said her interest in the topic began last fall when she worked extensively with Rock the Vote. “As a result of a lot of work and a lot of time and energy we registered about 2,000 students on National Voter Registration Day,” Brown says. “I kept pushing my folks, saying ‘there’s got to be a better way.’”
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.
The effort would work in tandem with the unique system of voting in Oregon, launched in 1998, in which residents receive ballots by mail and either send them back or drop them off at designated sites. That system has led to Oregon having some of the highest turnout rates in the nation (Washington is the only other state with vote-by-mail). But Brown says while the system means high turnout, it doesn’t mean high registration rates. About a quarter of eligible Oregon voters weren’t registered as of Election Day 2012.
As it stands, about 10 states allow residents to register to vote on Election Day in an effort to making voting more accessible. Brown's idea is to take the same principle behind same-day voting and adopt it to Oregon, which exclusively relies on ballots-by-mail.
“What we’re saying is, if you’re eligible to vote, you have the right to vote, and we’ll send you the ballot,” says Tony Green, a spokesman for Brown. “We're not going to make you wait in line.”
Residents provide proof of age, citizenship and residency, along with their signatures, to the DMV when they get their licenses. That's the same data that the state's elections division needs to register voters.
Advocates like the League of Women Voters of Oregon praise the idea, saying it creates a registration process that is "accessible and easily understood, as well as being easy to implement and administer." Voters can already register online using their driver’s license number, and the Secretary of State and DMV already have the technological capabilities to share data.
Still, Brown's plan has critics who argue that it shouldn’t necessarily be easy to register to vote. "What we really need is an American electorate that takes the time to study the issues," says Greg Leo, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party. "All of these things move away from that. 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 says it’s not just the act of voting that’s an important responsibility of citizenship -- but the act of registering to vote is meaningful too, and the government shouldn’t take it upon itself to handle it.
Brown doesn’t buy that logic. She says organizations spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on voter registration campaigns. If Oregon registration goes automatic, they can instead use their time and energy on educating and engaging voters instead of having them fill out registration paperwork, which would lead to a more informed electorate.
Green, Brown's spokesman, says voter registration systems aren’t designed for the purpose of weeding out uninformed voters; their purpose is to maintain accurate voter rolls. He says it’s voting that’s the important part of democracy, not registering. “Registration is just paperwork -- a bureaucratic requirement that one time made sense when we didn’t have centralized records.”
Since 2011, about 13 states have considered bills related to automatic voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Currently, lawmakers in Florida, Hawaii and Texas are considering legislation similar to the Oregon proposal.
While no other state has enacted an automatic registration law, Minnesota came close. In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that was similar to Brown's proposal. North Dakota abolished its voter registration system in 1951. Instead, prospective voters can cast ballots if they have voted in previous elections, are known by a poll worker to be eligible or simply sign an affidavit swearing to their eligibility.
Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials, says the debate about automatic voter registration tends to be a partisan one. "Democrats have always felt like if you get everybody registered, or you have Election Day registration, they win more often than they lose," Lewis said. "Republicans have read that and said 'you may be right, but why should we help you?'"
While Republicans in state legislatures have backed voter ID laws requiring residents to show identification in order to vote, Democrats tend to be supporters of automatic and same-day voter registration, Lewis says.
Internationally, the norm is for voting-age adults to automatically be registered to vote while giving citizens the option to opt-out, says Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, a national organization that advocates for election reforms including automatic registration. The U.S. takes the opposite approach. "We are an incredible outlier in how few eligible voters we get registered," Richie says. The difference is largely because many countries have national identification cards, which the U.S. lacks.
According to a 2009 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as a third of eligible Americans are not registered to vote. In places like, Argentina, Australia, Canada and France -- which all have registration rates in excess of 90 percent -- "registration is virtually automatic" and voters have no need to interact with election officials directly and fill out paperwork, according to their report.
Richie says much of the opposition to automatic registration comes from people who believe that their own votes will be diluted if the pool of voters is expanded.
He also says systems like the one Oregon is proposing could help improve the integrity of voter rolls, since they'd be based on a centralized database rather than a system in which people may or may not fill out handwritten postcards as they move around the state.