Bill would let teens register to vote at 16

Jonathan J. Cooper / The Associated Press /

SALEM — The Oregon House on Tuesday approved a measure backed by Democrats that would allow teenagers to register to vote when they turn 16 and get their driver’s license.

The teens wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot until their 18th birthday, but proponents hope the measure would increase participation among younger voters. As registered voters, they’d automatically get a ballot in the mail before the first election in which they’re eligible to vote.

“This bill would greatly enhance our ability to engage the young people who we so desperately need in our democracy,” said Rep. Ben Unger, of Hillsboro, a freshman Democrat and political consultant who was one the measure’s chief sponsors.

Lawmakers rejected a Republican counter-proposal that would have prohibited minors from joining political parties.

It also would have kept their contact information private from campaigns, political parties and others that collect data from voter rolls.

Political parties would begin reaching out to 15-year-olds, trying to persuade them to join on their 16th birthday when they get their driver’s license and register to vote, said Rep. Wally Hicks, R-Grants Pass.

“Fifteen is just too young to be involved in partisan politics,” Hicks said.

Democrats said the ritual of going to the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services office shortly after turning 16 provides the state a unique opportunity to connect with young people.

The state won’t get another opportunity to reach those voters at the DMV until their license expires when they turn 24, Unger said.

Republican Rep. Bob Jenson, of Pendleton, joined all 34 Democrats in supporting the measure, which was approved on a 35-25 vote. It now goes to the Senate, where Democrats also have a majority.