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Oregon will be the first state to automatically register voters

Oregon Governor Kate Brown
Oregon Governor Kate Brown
Kate Brown for Secretary of State campaign

  1. On Monday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) signed into law a bill that would automatically register people to vote — the nation's first such law.
  2. Every adult citizen with a driver's license who is not yet registered to vote now will be. At first, these registrations will be provisional, and people will have a few weeks to opt out if they so choose. New voters will be registered as "unaffiliated," not with a party.
  3. The state estimates 300,000 more people could quickly be registered because of this law — a 13 percent increase from the current electorate's size. Eventually, up to 860,000 more people might be registered.
  4. And because of Oregon's vote-by-mail system, all of these newly registered voters will be mailed ballots come election day.
  5. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the bill, but every Republican in the state legislature voted against it.

A bold new idea for American politics

Federal laws already allow people across the country the option to register to vote at the DMV. But Oregon's law is pioneering because it does it automatically, based off DMV data.

It's hard to overstate how novel this concept is for the US. Historically, our democracy has made it difficult for many people to vote — especially if they were from groups our elites didn't want voting. Many of these barriers have fallen to make it easier for people to register — though many states still close off registration weeks or a month before the election.

Oregon's new law removes the registration obstacle from the voter entirely. Instead, it's the government's responsibility to make sure every eligible voter is registered (though individuals are still allowed to opt out if they really don't want to be registered for whatever reason).

This is one step toward changing the norms around voting in US politics — making it the government's responsibility to ensure that all adult citizens can vote. Matt Yglesias has argued for going even further and enshrining an affirmative right to vote in our Constitution.

The bill was passed along partisan lines

Democrats overwhelmingly supported the bill, and Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it. But in arguing against the bill, the GOP generally didn't argue against the principle of easing registration. Instead, they expressed procedural qualms, saying that using DMV data to register voters could lead to identity theft or loss of privacy. However, Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian points out the state won't collect the information of specially protected groups of domestic abuse victims, and that "outsiders can already access DMV data for several reasons."

On the other hand, concerns that Oregon's law would overly register unauthorized immigrants don't look like they hold water. Oregon requires proof of citizenship for all driver's license applicants — and under the old voter registration system, applicants merely had to aver that they were citizens, with no proof required. "It may seem surprising, but experts say the new system actually provides greater assurance that only citizens are registering," Mapes writes.

A state willing to experiment with voting

Oregon has long been willing to experiment with ways to make it easier for people to vote. In 1998, its voters passed an initiative making it the first state in the country to conduct all of its elections by mail (though voters can also drop off ballots in person). Washington and Colorado have since adopted similar systems.

This new law is an early victory for the state's new governor, Kate Brown (D). Formerly Oregon's secretary of state, Brown ascended to the governor's office after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in February, due to a corruption scandal surrounding him and his fiancée.

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