Topping a list of 13 bills that Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown will push in 2015 is one that would add 300,000 voters to the state’s registry and eventually create one of the most complete voter rolls in the country.
Oregon nearly created a law known as universal voter registration two years ago that would have added a half-million voters to its rolls. Under the law, eligible voters wouldn’t have to do anything to register to vote. The state would do it for them using records the Department of Motor Vehicles has on file. Brown is proposing the law again this year.
Opponents are wary of costs and say voters should take initiative to register if they want to be involved in the voting process. Supporters say the process would continue a century-long progressive approach to elections in Oregon and create one of the most seamless processes for voting in the country.
Brown says the onus should be on the state, not the voter, if Oregon wants to conduct open and accessible elections. The law would register residents as unaffiliated voters when records show they’re eligible. Those who don’t want to be registered could then opt out.
“Right now we put the burden on those who wish to participate. You have to be proactive,” Brown said in an interview with The Bulletin on Thursday. “This would put the burden on those who don’t want to participate. And we think in a democracy that’s the right placement.”
Oregon would be the only state to conduct both vote-by-mail elections and universal voter registration, leaving elections experts uncertain what could happen to the state’s consistently high voter turnout under the new system.
“We would be in completely uncharted territory,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who tracks America’s elections.
McDonald said Canada saw decreased turnout in its elections after moving to universal registration. But Oregon’s all vote-by-mail system could buck that trend, he said.
New numbers from the Department of Motor Vehicles show an estimated 300,000 voters, or about 14 percent, would be added to the registry if the bill passes. That’s down from a 500,000 figure used last session because the state would use Jan. 1, 2013, as a starting point for the list of voters who are eligible but not registered, rather than 2008.
“Voters already believe when they go to the DMV that they are automatically updating their information or they’re automatically registered to vote,” Brown said. “If we want people to participate, we need to make it accessible.”
The 2013 attempt failed after a party-line vote in which Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joined Republican Senators to kill the bill. Johnson didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article.
Johnson’s argument that year, that the burden of registering should be on the voter, is already emerging as the Republican view ahead of an eventual debate over Brown’s bill.
Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who challenged Brown in the 2012 secretary of state race, said he opposes universal voter registration because voters should take initiative to register. He also questioned the cost and said there are privacy concerns because voting records are public.
“I’m all for encouraging people to vote and making it easy for people to vote and encouraging people to register and making it as easy as possible to register,” Buehler said. “But to force someone? That’s just a different philosophy in government.”
“Government should nudge people to do the right thing but not force people,” he said.
Some rural counties opposed the 2013 measure because adding voters to the rolls would increase the costs of running elections. Brown’s office estimated it would cost the state about $300,000 to implement the proposed law and send the extra ballots and between $1.1 million and $1.3 million total for all counties.
She’ll ask the state to cover the counties’ costs under this year’s bill. Brown’s office didn’t immediately have a cost estimate for the new, smaller number.
Tim Scott, elections director for Multnomah County, said it was a “no-brainer” for his office to support automatic registration, as it did in 2013.
“It simplifies the administration of the voter registration process for both the voter and the elections office, and hopefully we get more people participating,” Scott said.
Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship said she was still reviewing the bill and didn’t have a comment. County clerks will hold a conference the first week of February where the bill will be discussed.
The proposal, if passed, would be another in a long line of elections reforms used in Oregon before most other states.
Oregon was one of the first of 20 states to create an online voter registration system. It later joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which allowed Oregon to send nearly 900,000 reminders to residents who were eligible but not registered to vote ahead of the Oct. 14 deadline.
Oregon’s decades-old all vote-by-mail system has also spread to Washington and Colorado.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,