Oregon Leading Nation in Voter Registration

Automatic voter registration has made Oregon a voter registration powerhouse — and new numbers released today make the state a leader nationally.

July 8, 2016

Today, Oregon’s secretary of state announced that it has registered a whopping 206,554 new voters since the state began automatically registering voters in January. Oregon’s pioneering of an automatic voter registration system is helping make the state a leader in voter registration.

Up until now, Oregon has been registering eligible voters when they interact with the DMV, unless those citizens decline registration by sending back a mailing.

That process alone has already quadrupled registration rates compared to prior years. But that rate doesn’t even account for the 124,912 registrations the secretary of state reported today that were added to the rolls through the state’s “lookback.”

Under the lookback, election officials sent 145,455 mailings last month to eligible, unregistered Oregonians who interacted with the DMV in 2014 and 2015, before the state implemented automatic registration. The lookback captures over 60 percent of new voters registered so far in 2016, who would have otherwise remained unregistered unless they visited the DMV again. 

Oregon’s early success in implementing the nation’s first automatic voter registration system demonstrates how the reform modernizes voter registration in two key ways.

First, it changes the default to registering every eligible voter. In everything from our smartphones to whether we participate in our employer’s retirement plan, humans tend to stick to the default settings. Today, the default setting everywhere but the Oregon DMV is that eligible voters are unregistered: you must take affirmative steps to get registered to vote. Under an opt-out system, you must take affirmative steps to remain unregistered. Tellingly, since Oregon shifted DMV registration from opt-in to opt-out, only eight percent of eligible Oregonians decided to opt out.

Second, automatic registration electronically and securely registers every eligible voter, which cuts costs, increases accuracy, and boosts registration rates.  

Though Oregon has made great, fast strides, the state is not alone in pursuing automatic registration. California, Vermont, and West Virginia also passed automatic registration legislation — and some have done so with strong bipartisan support. Through an agreement between DMV and election officials, Connecticut adopted automatic registration administratively. In Illinois and New Jersey, bills await the governor’s signature. If both are signed into law, 70 million people — more than one in five Americans — will live in a state that automatically registers voters or will soon.  

All told, nearly 30 states considered this important reform just this year. Those states that are sitting on the fence or not yet moved to action should take note of Oregon’s progress, particularly the lookback, which all states should consider as part of automatic registration. Oregon’s system turns their DMV into a voter-registration powerhouse — it’s time for other states to follow. 

Daniel Nesbit is a Brennan Center Summer Intern and is a J.D. candidate at Stanford Law School.