The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats open new front in voting wars in Oregon

(Melina Mara, The Washington Post)

In the wake of big Republican victories in 2010, new conservative majorities in state legislatures across the country passed laws that rolled back a decade-long trend of expanding access to the ballot box. Democrats fought back, in the few states they still controlled, by expanding early voting, mail-in voting and new registration rules.

Now, Oregon Democrats are trying something even more aggressive: A proposal likely to pass the legislature this year would further ease the hassle of voter registration by automatically adding eligible citizens to the voting rolls.

Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) introduced the measure Monday in testimony before the state House Rules Committee in Salem. Brown said the bill would add an estimated 300,000 voters to the registration rolls by scraping data from the Department of Driver and Motor Vehicle Services.

Brown said DMV data from as far back as 2013 would reveal hundreds of thousands of citizens eligible to cast a ballot. The measure introduced this year isn’t as aggressive as a version that passed the House but failed in the Senate by a single vote two years ago.

Democrats, who picked up two state Senate seats in the 2014 elections, are optimistic they have the votes to pass the measure this time. Party leaders have put the bill on a fast track, and Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) would likely sign it if it lands on his desk.

Republicans say Oregon’s voting system already has some of the lowest barriers to voting and registration in the country. Oregon is one of three states, along with Washington and Colorado, that conduct elections entirely by mail, meaning every registered voter receives a ballot several weeks before Election Day. After moving to the all-mail system, Oregon’s voter turnout has been among the highest in the nation.

Left unsaid at the Rules Committee hearing were the political ramifications of adding so many new voters in a state where only 2.2 million people are registered. Democratic-leaning outside groups spend millions across the country to register voters, primarily low-income and minority voters who are less likely to sign up through other means. Removing the need to register those voters would ease the strain on liberal groups’ budgets, allowing them to focus more on getting those new voters to return their ballots.

Brown said her bill wouldn’t solely aid Democratic registration drives. The DMV information would add new voters both in urban and rural areas, which would presumably include at least some Republican voters.

The Democratic pushback against Republican-introduced voting rights and access legislation has been confined to just a handful of states in recent years by virtue of the relatively few states in which Democrats control all levers of government. Colorado’s Democratic legislature passed its all-mail election measure in 2013, which the party thought would improve its turnout operations. Republicans took advantage of the new system too, and Republican Cory Gardner ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the 2014 election.

The Minnesota legislature in 2013 eased access to absentee ballots by allowing anyone to request a mail-in ballot without an excuse. Democrats in Maine and Nevada pushed their own absentee ballot laws in 2013, though those measures were blocked by Republican governors.