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How to argue about automatic voter registration, as Oregon gets the ball rolling

Walk into the DMV; get registered to vote. (AFP/Getty Images)

Once again, Oregon is pioneering new ways to get people to vote.

In 1998, Oregon was the first state to adopt voting by mail. In 2016, Oregon is first state to start automatically registering people to vote when they apply for or renew their drivers' licenses.

Almost a year ago, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed into law the bill that she actually proposed as secretary of state. It  automatically registers qualified Oregonians (read: verified U.S. citizens) who have had interactions with the DMV going back to 2013. Those newly registered voters are later notified by mail; they have 21 days to opt out or to join a political party. If 21 days goes by with no response, they're automatically registered as "non-affiliated."

In January of this year, the much-debated program went into effect. And this week, Oregon's new secretary of state, Jeanne Atkins (D), shared with The Fix some of the first results: After six days, they were on track to register four times as many voters as the state averaged in one month before the DMV partnership.

But expanding voter registration is still a partisan debate, including in Oregon, where every Republican in the state legislature voted against it. In California, a similar program passed this fall along partisan lines.

Opponents cite concerns about privacy and fraud. But here are political reasons to oppose automatic voter registration programs. There's vast evidence that the people who are more likely not to be registered (minorities, students, lower-income Americans) also tend to vote Democratic.

That could help explain why, for now, mostly blue states like Vermont, Washington  and Connecticut are watching the process in Oregon and considering their own automatic voter registration programs. But supporters hope if they can run their programs well enough, redder states will get on board too.

Now that we have some actual evidence when it comes to how this program works, here are some arguments for and against automatic voter registration laws:

For: Why wouldn't you want more people registered to vote?

The argument here is simple. More people registered to vote encourages more people to actually vote, and voting is the bedrock of American democracy.

Before Oregon's program launched, officials estimated that tying driver's licenses to voter registration would almost immediately get 275,000 or so Oregonians who have interacted with the DMV in he past two years registered. They have yet to start processing those numbers, but they say they're pleasantly surprised with the rise in voter registration from those who stopped by the DMV in January.

"Eventually, this will probably be the way most people register in Oregon," Atkins predicted.

Against: Automatic voter registration mostly benefits Democrats

Or, at least, it benefits the party in control of the state that's implementing the program. When California debated its automatic voter registration this fall, The Fix's Philip Bump made the case that boosting voter registration in a Democratic-leaning state will simply boost the number of Democratic voters more than Republicans.

Preliminary numbers suggest that's been the case in Oregon. Of 437 automatically registered voters who took the next step and actually filled out a card to choose a party affiliation, about 49 percent chose the Democratic Party, 30 percent chose Republican and 5 percent chose independent. Oregon's secretary of state notes that just about mirrors the state's partisan voter breakdown now.

For: In Oregon, voter registration is already spiking

The early numbers are even better than Oregon's officials say they could have hoped for. In six days, they registered about 4,500 voters. Before this program, they registered about 2,000 voters a month. If they keep going at this rate, Oregon will register four times as many voters every month than before the program.

There's another added benefit of using drivers license information to register new voters. Atkins said her office has already found 17,000 instances of ballots going to the wrong address. They've been able to simultaneously update people's addresses on the voter rolls as people update their addresses at the DMV.

Plus, it's a great way to register the 10,000 or so new Oregonians moving to the state every month, Atkins said.

Against: What about voter fraud?

There are still concerns about voter fraud that this program really can't address. If more people are registered to vote, that opens the door to potential voter fraud, especially in Oregon where people get their ballots mailed to them and fill them out at home. You can't really police electioneering in people's homes.

We should note that evidence of in-person voter fraud at the actual polling places remains extremely rare, but it's harder to determine what fraud could be happening behind closed doors.

Up for debate: What about online security?

There are a few concerns that have yet to be answered, like how to keep safe potential voters' personal information, which is traveling back and forth in databases between the DMV and the secretary of state's office and the counties.

Time will have to tell on this one. Atkins said they're committed to best practices, but "we'd be foolish to say there won't be any hack at anytime."

Up for debate: Will more people actually end up voting?

Just because you're registered to vote, of course, doesn't mean you will. In fact, this program will likely end up decreasing the percentage of registered voters who turn out, given it is registering voters who never bothered to register before -- and, thus, are less likely to take the time to vote. We'll have to wait until Oregon has a few elections under its belt to know the answer to this crucial question.

But Atkins says even if this program gets a statistically insignificant number of people to vote for the first time, she will have done her job.