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How Oregon’s New Law Can Change Voter Registration

The Oregon legislature recently passed a bill that will dramatically modernize voter registration and have a chance to increase voter participation across the state.

  • Jonathan Brater
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.