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For Oregon Voters, the Future Is Now

While the political echo chamber has focused on the Iowa primaries this week, a modern innovation that could transform the electorate nationwide quietly rolled out in Oregon.

  • Jonathan Brater
February 4, 2016

While the political echo chamber has focused on the venerable Iowa primaries this week, a modern innovation that could eventually transform the electorate nationwide has been rolling out quietly in Oregon.

Today is Oregon Motor Voter Day: the first public look at the state’s historic new automatic voter registration law. Eligible Oregonians were first eligible to register under this new process when they visited DMVs in early January. As the first round of registrations come in, state officials are already reporting significant registration increases. Importantly, because the state has implemented an accurate and secure system and has carefully communicated with voters, technical difficulties and complaints have been virtually nonexistent. When the law is fully implemented, Oregon will stand at the forefront of election administration as we approach a high-stakes presidential election. 

Oregon has succeeded in making voter registration automatic — changing registration from an “opt in” to an “opt out.” The state describes this as “Oregon Motor Voter,” an apt term since it upgraded the traditional motor voter system, first used in the early 1990s. Oregon streamlined this process so DMV customers are registered without having to take any additional action. Only those individuals whom the state can tell are eligible citizens are signed up automatically, because of information they have already given the DMV (others can continue to register through traditional methods). All voters added through the new process receive a mailer with the choice to opt out.

Oregon is a welcome improvement on the status quo: Too many Americans who want to participate in the upcoming presidential election will find registration barriers blocking their way. Antiquated, paper-based systems mean that eligible citizens must submit duplicative and error-prone registration forms in hard copy before they can be added to the rolls — and do it again every time they move.  Some states have modernized this process by electronically transferring registration information when citizens visit DMVs and other government offices, and through online registration. In fact, 27 states now have electronic registration (up from 17 in 2010), while 26 states have online registration options (up from 6 in 2010). These states deserve kudos for their efforts.

Automatic registration is the gold standard, however. It is convenient for voters, more secure, and more efficient, because it helps keep the rolls up to date.

Already, we are seeing positive results. Today, Oregon officials reported that based on preliminary data, Oregon Motor Voter added 4,300 people to the rolls in the first six days – more than double the previous average number of registered voters per month. This successful rollout is a testament both to the viability of automatic registration and the thorough, careful legislative and administrative process that Gov. Kate Brown and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins undertook to ensure the measure was drafted and implemented carefully. It is a victory both for those public officials and for civic groups, such as the Oregon Bus Project, who pushed strongly for the bill and helped implement the law over the past year.

We will see further benefits when Oregon implements the “lookback” portion of the law — registering individuals with existing DMV records. This could add hundreds of thousands of eligible voters to the rolls for the presidential election if it is in place before November, and could give Oregon the highest registration rate in the country for the 2016 election.  

The benefits are spreading beyond Oregon. Following the Beaver State’s lead, California passed its own version of automatic registration last year, which will be implemented some time in 2017 and could register a significant percentage of the 6.6 million eligible but unregistered Californians. New Jersey’s legislature passed an automatic registration measure, but it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

Dozens of other states have introduced bills in the last two legislative sessions, and there are high-profile efforts to pass measures in Alaska, Illinois, Maryland, and Washington, among others. These plans vary in their details — for example, some states are considering extending automatic registration to all government agencies with reliable eligibility data, not just the DMV, which could reach more voters. Automatic, permanent registration can also be combined with Election Day registration, which adds additional benefits. 

Voting barriers are sure to be a leading topic of conversation for the upcoming presidential election. For better or (more often) worse, that is the election system as we know it. Oregon, however, is ahead of the curve and setting an example for other states to follow.