As secretary of state, Kate Brown oversees Oregon's electoral process, from signing up new voters to counting ballots.
The Portland Democrat is supposed to exercise her duties without regard to party. But, Roguishly, Brown has failed to fix well-documented shortcomings in the voter registration process that hurt both Oregon's minor parties and minority voters heading into this year's primary and general elections.
This all matters because to maintain ballot access, minor parties must either maintain 10,000 members or get 1,400 votes, or 1 percent of the vote in a statewide election.
Oregon has a rich selection of third parties that include the Independent, Working Families, Libertarian, Pacific Green, Constitution and Progressive parties. But as Portland utility lawyer Dan Meek notes, it is harder for voters to join those minor parties if registration forms are inaccurate.
Meek—co-founder of Oregon's largest third party, the 51,000-member Independent Party—noticed last year that voter registration cards at the Multnomah County Elections Office were at least 15 months out of date. The cards did not list minor parties that had qualified for the ballot within that period.
Meek has spent the past year contacting Brown's office, the attorney general's office, and elections clerks in all 36 counties, imploring them to recycle the obsolete forms. While some county officials have agreed to comply, Brown's office, which is responsible for all voter registration forms, has not.
Brown has also failed to respond adequately to another shortcoming noticed by Meek—the Spanish-language versions of the forms were even more out of date. Although the state has offered registration forms in Spanish for a decade, Meek notes that the forms he saw did not even list the Working Families Party, which was formed in mid-2006.
"Handing out voter registration forms that have been obsolete for years is not fair to the minority parties of Oregon," says Meek.
The response from Brown's office to Meek's March 3 query asking if it was distributing updated Spanish-language registration forms? An email saying, "No, because we still have [obsolete] stock on hand."
Brown's spokesman, Don Hamilton, offered two responses on Tuesday to Meek's concerns. First, Hamilton says, while the physical forms may be inaccurate, online forms are updated continuously, and as of March 1, voters can register online. Second, money is tight. "It's impractical in the current economic climate to print new cards every time there is a change," Hamilton says.
Meek gives thumbs down to that explanation. First, not all potential voters have computers or know how to use them. Second, Meek says, "Sometimes you have to spend money for democracy to work."