OREGON GOV. Kate Brown (D) signed into law a remarkable reform Monday that will sweep away one of the greatest barriers to the ballot box: The gratuitously complicated, opt-in voter registration process. While much of the country is making voting more difficult, Oregon is pushing forward with innovative voting reform that should be universally praised. Other states — or, better yet, federal standards — should follow.
Oregon’s new law assigns the state more responsibility to keep voter rolls complete and accurate, taking much of the burden off individuals. Oregonians who meet voting eligibility rules will be automatically registered to vote when they get drivers licenses or personal ID cards. The state Department of Transportation already collects all the basic information needed to register people — legal name, age, residence, citizenship information and electronic signature. It also regularly collects change of address information. Why not share all of that with the state officials responsible for keeping the voter rolls? It’s an obvious move. Yet in doing so, Oregon becomes a national leader.
Oregonians will still be able to decline registration. State election officials must send all automatically registered voters a card asking if they would prefer to stay off the rolls. But making voter registration opt-out rather than opt-in is long overdue: Behavioral research shows that people tend to participate in all sorts of valuable programs at higher rates when they have to go out of their way to leave rather than join. Oregon expects to register 300,000 of its 800,000 unregistered residents immediately, and thousands more as the system phases in. There’s no good case for making people go through the hassle of traditional, opt-in registration simply to exercise the fundamental right to vote.
The new system won’t be perfect. As the continuing national fracas over voter ID laws has revealed, many poor and minority voters lack state-issued identification, and they could fall through cracks in Oregon’s automatic registration. On the other hand, that issue might fade over time, as those who lack ID tend to be older. And Oregon could expand the reform later, increasing information sharing from more state agencies.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest problems with voter registration rolls is that people move and don’t update their addresses. In Oregon, change of address information sent to the Department of Transportation will get passed on to election officials. But to fully solve the problem, officials may need to allow address changes to be reported on Election Day or permit people to vote at any polling station.
Republican-led states that have been erecting new barriers to voting should instead look to Oregon’s example. So should Congress, which has broad powers under the Constitution to regulate voting in federal elections and could begin pushing states in the right direction.
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