The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could Oregon’s voting law signal a Democratic push to open up elections?

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This is apparently what happens when a Democratic secretary of state — the kind in charge of elections, not the kind in charge of diplomacy — unexpectedly becomes her state’s governor:

On Monday, Oregon became the first state that will automatically register voters using information collected at the DMV.
Anyone eligible will be given an opportunity to opt out — but otherwise they become registered voters. The administration estimates that about 300,000 people will be added to the rolls, increasing the number of registered voters from 2.2 million to 2.5 million.
Federal law already requires states to allow people to register to vote while filling out paperwork for a driver’s license. Oregon’s new law will make the process automatic.

Democrats have felt no end of frustration over the spread of voter ID laws, not only because they disenfranchise huge numbers of people in the name of solving an essentially imaginary problem (in-person voter impersonation), but also because they seem almost impossible to stop. The Supreme Court has approved ID laws multiple times, even ones that are nakedly partisan, and voter ID laws are now in effect in 31 states. Republicans have also tried other ways to make registration and voting as difficult as possible, including restricting early voting. But other than mounting traditional registration and education drives and challenging new laws in court, Democrats haven’t come up with too many ways to fight back.

But Oregon could be pointing the way to a new, more offensive effort on Democrats’ part. Instead of just trying to counter Republican voting restrictions, they could find new ways to open up the voting system and get more people to the polls. This law doesn’t completely solve the problem of the unregistered (it only reaches people who have gone to get driver’s licenses or other ID from the DMV), but it goes a long way in that direction.

And critically, the Oregon law begins from the premise that everyone should be part of the electorate, and if they aren’t, then policy ought to be changed. Under the new law, you can opt out of registration if you want, but the default is that you’ll be registered. The implicit assumption behind Republican restrictions is that voting isn’t a right but a privilege, one you have to earn by jumping through a series of hoops.

We all know why that is: When you make registering and voting inconvenient or difficult, a certain number of potential voters will be eliminated from the pool, and those voters — whether because they’re younger or poorer or more minority — are more likely to vote for Democrats. You could argue that on the flip side, Democrats who want to make registering and voting easier are just as motivated by their partisan interest. Which may be true — as Sean McElwee details, a variety of studies have found that the non-voting population is substantially more liberal than the population that actually votes. But it’s still in Democrats’ favor that unlike Republicans, they’re not trying to restrict anyone’s rights in order to accomplish their goal.

Republicans claim — sometimes even without giggling — that their only concern is the integrity of the ballot and they never even consider the possibility that ID requirements will benefit their partisan interests. So they ought to be taken at their word. If we put enough effort into it, there’s no reason we couldn’t have a system that was secure and made fraud extremely difficult, but also made voting the default option. Ten states use same-day registration, which makes voting much easier, and they haven’t been overwhelmed by fraud. We ought to be able to come up with more ideas for making voting easier without sacrificing security.

Just imagine if elections were about which party or candidate was more appealing, and not about who could get more of their voters to the polls while discouraging the other party’s supporters from turning out. That would be quite something.