A bill that could register as many as 600,000 new Oregon voters is in danger of dying without a vote.
The state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kate Brown, wants anyone who gets a new driver’s license, or renews an existing one, to be automatically registered to vote.
Brown argues that more registered voters promotes a stronger democracy: 2.8 million Oregonians are eligible to vote but only 2.2 million are registered, a registration rate Brown calls “mediocre.”
Supporters say the bill should be zinging its way through the Legislature, appealing to citizens who want to limit their dealings with bureaucracy.
“It’s a great concept,” says Paul Gronke, chairman of the political science department at Reed College. “Why would anybody want citizens to appear in government offices twice instead of just once?”
The bill has partisan implications. Unregistered voters tend to be younger and Hispanic, who tilt toward the Democratic Party—which could add to the Democrats’ 183,000-voter registration edge over Republicans.
Yet Brown has failed to pull together the needed votes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats. The bill is still stuck in committee and may never reach the House or Senate floors before the 2013 session adjourns, probably some time this month. Democratic leaders are reluctant to have members vote on a controversial measure without a guarantee it will pass.
The secretary of state’s office says no other state uses driver’s licenses for automatic voter registration. Eleven states, including Maine and Minnesota, which lead the nation in eligible voter participation, have same-day registration. (With vote-by-mail, same-day registration would not work here.) North Dakota is the easiest state in which to vote—no registration is required.
The potential for aiding Democratic voter rolls is one reason GOP officials have come out against the measure.
“We’ve never said that out loud,” says former Republican Party of Oregon spokesman Greg Leo, who has twice testified against the bill in committee hearings. “But what this bill would do is allow Democrats to rebuild the kind of registration advantage they had before the 2008 election.”
That’s when younger and minority voters flocked to vote for Barack Obama.
Gronke, who studies voting patterns as director of the Early Voting Information Center, agrees the bill could help Democrats initially. “Republicans should try to appeal to Hispanics rather than try to keep them off the rolls,” he says.
The passage of a new law earlier this session that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses has added opposition to Brown’s bill.
Last week, Janice Williamson of Salem cited such concerns in written testimony she presented to the Joint Ways Subcommittee on General Government. “There are no safeguards in this bill to prevent ineligible or illegal persons from obtaining a driver’s license, becoming registered and voting illegally,” she wrote.
Brown’s spokesman, Tony Green, says that wouldn’t happen. DMV data indicate who is a citizen and who is not, and elections clerks would simply set their data queries to exclude noncitizens from voting rolls.
But opponents have also argued Brown’s bill would abridge citizens’ rights by automatically registering them unless they affirmatively opt out. They say the bill also raises questions about ballot security and added costs for county elections officials.
One of Brown’s strongest allies is Linn County elections director Steve Druckenmiller, who originally won election as a Republican. Druckenmiller, now a non-affiliated voter, says the debate over automating voter registration reminds him of the debate over vote-by-mail, a concept pioneered in Linn County.
“A lot of people opposed vote-by-mail because they believed it would benefit the other party,” he says. “That’s a simplistic view.”
Druckenmiller says county clerks already get more than 125,000 address-change forms annually from the Driver and Motor Vehicle Division, or DMV. Brown’s bill would create an electronic system that cuts costs by updating addresses automatically, he adds.
“Voting is the underpinning to all other rights,” Druckenmiller says. “The current registration system creates barriers to voting. That’s backwards.”
Brown, a Democrat who was Senate majority leader before becoming secretary of state in 2008, says she thinks the votes are there in the House to pass her bill. But she lacks the votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 16-14 majority.
“I think it’s fair to say that a 16-14 Senate is a highly unpredictable body,” Brown says.
And at least one member of her party, Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), says she won’t support the bill.
“I don’t like that it shifts the burden of who is responsible for bringing voters to the polls from the individual to the government,” Johnson says. “I still view voting as a privilege, and if you want to vote, you should get up and march yourself in there and register.”