How Oregon's New Law Can Change Voter Registration

March 11, 2015

Tens of thousands gathered this weekend to commemorate the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march, which helped pass the Voting Rights Act and opened our nation’s eyes to a long history of discrimination in voting. Decades later, many states are still trying to restrict voting. But there are also some bright spots for reform — and Oregon just had a breakthrough.

Last week the Oregon legislature passed a bill that will dramatically modernize voter registration in the Beaver State. In a groundbreaking approach, the new law will streamline registration at the DMV — commonly known as “motor voter” — by replacing a paper-based system with a new process in which the state identifies and adds eligible Oregonians to the rolls electronically — without any action needed by the voter. Many other states electronically transfer voter registration information from DMV offices to election officials, but Oregon will be the first to put the burden on the government — not the individual — to ensure voters are registered. By not requiring citizens with DMV records to submit any additional application to be registered, the bill will initially add more than 300,000 eligible voters to the rolls, and could eventually give Oregon the highest registration rate in the country.

At a time when increasing partisanship often gets in the way of common-sense improvements, modernizing voter registration is a win-win for voters and election administrators alike. States with the capacity to make Oregon’s system a reality should look toward this bold new model, and others should work toward building the technology and infrastructure needed to do so.

Although contentious issues such as voter ID often get more attention, voter registration remains the single greatest barrier to participation in American democracy. Approximately 50 million eligible Americans cannot participate in elections because they are not registered to vote.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to help address this problem. Among other reforms, this law implemented motor voter, whereby those applying for driver’s licenses or updating their information could update their voter registration status as well. But overreliance on ink-and-paper forms is impeding progress.

According to a Pew study, another 24 million registrations — 1 in 8 nationwide — contains serious errors or out-of-date information, such as an incorrect address. This has real consequences for participation: Studies regularly show that millions of voters are prevented from casting ballots because of registration problems. Further, maintaining the voter rolls is a constant source of headaches for election administrators, who must waste time and money maintaining and updating sloppy voter rolls, often in a short time window right before the election. When election officials have to hand-enter this information, it costs resources and money, and introduces errors and inaccuracies in our registration records.

Oregon’s new bill will go a long way toward upgrading motor voter. Using information the DMV already has on file — including age, residential information, and citizenship status —eligible Oregonians will be added to the rolls without having to fill out additional paperwork. Those who update their information will similarly have their registration records updated. No longer will bureaucratic obstacles block participation.

The new legislation will also allow those who wish to remain unregistered to stay off the voter rolls, and has strong safeguards to ensure only eligible citizens are signed up. Oregon has been collecting proof of lawful presence at the DMV since 2008, meaning the state can already confirm that hundreds of thousands of unregistered individuals are citizens by looking at the documents they provided to the DMV. This number will grow as more Oregonians apply for, renew, and update their driver’s license. Voters can also choose to register as they always have, by filling out paper registration applications and affirming their citizenship status.

Oregon’s groundbreaking version of electronic registration will combine with its existing use of online registration to give the state one of the most modernized systems in the country. In a state with 2.2 million registered voters, adding approximately 300,000 eligible voters to the rolls by 2016 will be a dramatic leap forward for voter participation. As Nathan Howard from the Bus Project notes, this takes Oregon “one step closer to having all eligible voters’ voices heard.”  

It also continues a recent trend of states bringing voter registration into the 21st century. With Oregon joining the fold, at least 30 states have or soon will have some form of electronic transfer at the DMV, and in some cases, other agencies as well. Many more states have other modernizing reforms, such as online registration, portable registration, and Election Day registration. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a bipartisan body convened to study ways to improve the way we run elections, listed streamlining the sharing of motor vehicle and voter data among best practices for election administration in a report released last year. The Commission also recognized that with 50 different election regimes, not all states will implement these reforms in the exact same way.

Oregon has chosen a new model that completely streamlines the registration process from the perspective of the voter because its DMV database has the ability to reliably identify those who provided citizenship documentation during previous transactions. States with infrastructure similar to Oregon can now look to this as a bold new model for reform. In states without this capacity, systems that require the voter to affirmatively indicate eligibility at the time of registration may continue to be preferable at the present time, but expanding and improving the quality of DMV data may eventually allow a similar system. Regardless of the specific mechanism by which electronic registration is accomplished, there remains positive momentum for this pro-voter reform.  

Unfortunately, many states continue to pursue policies that will make it harder, not easier, for eligible voters to cast ballots. With the prospect of federal reform stalled for now, state capitals are more important than ever when it comes to determining how accessible — or inaccessible — the vote will be. More states should follow Oregon’s lead in finding common-sense improvements to the way we vote.