Oregon’s motto – “she flies with her own wings” – could not be truer today. Thanks to today’s final passage in the state legislature of the “New Motor Voter” law (HB 2177), hundreds of thousands of Oregonians will be added to the rolls under a trailblazing reform that shifts the burden of voter registration from the individual to the state. Talk about a victory!
While handfuls of states have cut strong electoral reforms or erected barriers to the ballot box, Oregon has traded an outdated elections system for a modern one that makes voting more accessible. Oregon, already a state with some of the highest voter turnout (thanks in part to its all-mail voting), is going above and beyond to ensure that eligible individuals have every opportunity to join the electorate. That’s what true democracy looks like. Indeed, Sweden and Australia both take the initiative to register their own citizens – and both their voter turnouts exceed 96%.
Imagine! Our last midterm election saw the lowest national turnout in 72 years. Our levels of engagement are related to our levels of registration, and we simply can’t – as a country – arrive at full participation unless we remove obstacles to voting. Easing restrictions, and ensuring that the registration process is streamlined and automatic, is one way to get more Americans to the polls. There’s no reason why, in 2015, less than half our citizenry should show up to vote to determine the direction of this country.
Oregon’s law is the right step in that direction. Here’s what it requires: Information (name, age, citizenship, residency, and electronic signature) obtained from license and identification applications processed by the Department of Motor Vehicles is forwarded to the Secretary of State’s office, which relays it to county elections clerks. Clerks then notify eligible voters that, among other things, they will be automatically registered to vote unless they “opt out.” We know from empirical research that wide-scale behavioral change takes effect when institutions and governments “nudge” individuals toward reform without taking away choice. “Opt-out,” rather than “opt-in,” programs like the one advanced by Oregon today promise to increase political participation.
Common Cause Oregon, as part of a coalition effort led by the Bus Federation, was instrumental over the past couple of years in getting the measure passed. Thanks to their efforts, the state stands to register an additional 300,000 eligible voters. And if the state expands on this legislation to allow the same opportunity at other agencies – such as health exchanges and public assistance offices – Oregon could see unprecedented levels of engagement, particularly by those previously marginalized.
Robust participation in our political process is exactly what this country needs. With labor laws, climate change, and health care on the line, our citizenry must consistently show up to ensure their representatives – at local, state, and federal levels – do their jobs and represent the needs of Americans. Oregon’s law gets us much closer to the promise. Now it’s time for the rest to do the same.