SALEM — Republican Dennis Richardson has in two straight elections asked voters to look past his record as a former six-term legislator representing a conservative, Southern Oregon district.
“The social issues have been resolved,” Richardson said at a forum in Eugene after Brad Avakian, his Democratic opponent for secretary of state, pointed out the ideological differences between the two, notably Richardson’s opposition to abortion. “What is crucial is that we’re not talking about social issues.”
While his stance on abortion isn’t germane to the role of Oregon’s chief elections officer, Richardson’s support for voter registration laws in the Legislature closely relates to his current run and highlights another in a wide array stark contrasts between he and Avakian.
Richardson for three straight sessions as a state legislator supported or sponsored bills that some liken to voter-suppression measures that have passed in Republican-controlled states elsewhere and have been struck down in state and federal courts.
Two measures Richardson supported, House Bill 2583 in 2005 and House Bill 3432 in 2009, would have required eligible voters to provide proof of U.S. citizenship before they could register to vote. While voters currently must attest to their eligibility, the bills would have required them to prove it using a passport, naturalization document or birth certificate.
In 2007, Richardson tried to force a vote on House Bill 3554, an immigration bill that included provisions that would have required residents to prove citizenship to register to vote.
While the Republican-controlled House passed the bill in 2005, a proposal elections experts and civil rights groups call a barrier to voting, none of the proposals became law. Similar proposals been thrown out in state and federal courts in states that have passed the laws for being a burden on voters and blocking the right to vote.
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said proof of citizenship laws are “seen by some as a means of making it harder for likely Democrats to vote.”
At the time of the House vote on the measure in 2005, Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, said he voted against the measure “because its disguised effect is to reduce the number of citizens who register to vote.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates against barriers to voting and challenges laws in court, lists proof of citizenship laws as “voter suppression.”
Richardson says he no longer sees a need for the laws, but believes there are steps Oregon should take to ensure the integrity of its elections.
“It was never about voter suppression, it was about ensuring integrity of our elections,” Richardson said.
In a state where the secretary of state’s office has at times pushed to expand voter ballot access, including establishing the nation’s first vote-by-mail elections and automatic voter registration, proof of citizenship laws are a stark contrast to the progressive electoral process in Oregon.
“I don’t know why I voted the way I did at that time,” Richardson said of the bills. “But I know who I am today and how I’ll function (as secretary of state), and that’s to maintain the laws and to ensure that voting is open, fair and transparent for candidates, parties and for voters.”
The proposed law would have followed similar efforts in Arizona and preceded a proof of citizenship law in Kansas. Both have failed to stand up in court.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the federal Motor Voter law, allowing Americans to register without proof of citizenship, pre-empts Arizona’s law.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who has championed the state’s proof of citizenship law, moved to block voters from participating in state and local elections without first proving citizenship using a passport, birth certificate or other form of ID.
Courts have ruled against that move as well, with judges ruling that Kobach must allow voters to register to vote using the standard federal form that asks voters under penalty of perjury to attest that they are citizens and eligible to vote.
“The 2005 and 2009 proposed measures are the exact kind of laws that Arizona and Kansas have tried to enact recently,” said Josh Douglas, associate professor of law at the University of Kentucky College of Law, who focuses on elections law and reviewed the bills proposed in Oregon.
Richardson has said he knows voters who are sent ballots but aren’t eligible to vote.
“I’ve got a lady I know in Southern Oregon and who is a Brazilian citizen and is here on a green card and she gets a ballot every election,” he said. “So I don’t know if there is integrity in the system or not.”
The secretary of state’s office said anyone who has knowledge of a noncitizen voting illegally in Oregon should contact the office for investigation.
“It is a felony in Oregon for a person to vote who is not eligible to do so,” said Molly Woon, Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins’ spokeswoman. “Noncitizens voting in Oregon elections may be subject to deportation in addition to felony prosecution.”
While Richardson’s past support of proof of citizenship happened over a decade ago, the idea is still alive in Oregon. Republican legislators last year proposed a nearly identical version of the 2009 bill Richardson co-sponsored.
Secretaries of state would be in the position to offer support or opposition to any bill in the Legislature.
The issue is among the many stark contrasts between Richardson and Avakian.
At a debate in Bend last month, the candidates had a terse exchange after Avakian brought up Richardson’s support of proof of citizenship laws, which Richardson disputed.
“That is absolutely not correct,” Richardson said at the time. “If you have evidence to show … show us the evidence.”
Avakian last week pointed to Richardson’s votes in favor of the bills and said it’s “very important to be honest with who you are and what you believe.”
Avakian has said voter fraud is a nonissue in Oregon, and that there are still barriers in place, such as a voter registration deadline that is three weeks before ballots are counted in elections.
He said he wants to allow voters to register through the day of the election, known as same-day registration. That proposal would be difficult to administer because Oregon is a vote-by-mail state. County clerks begin preparing ballots days before the registration deadline, a labor-intensive process that often leads to duplicate ballots being sent to voters that change their party affiliation on or just before the deadline.
Richardson says the duplicate ballots, each of which cost the counties around $2.39, represent wasted spending and raise the possibility of duplicate voting. The state mailed over 96,000 duplicate ballots during the 2016 primary election in May.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,