Automatic Voter Registration: Is Oregon’s New Law a Game Changer?

A Path for Voters?

A Path for Voters? [click on photo to check out Irv Lefberg Photograph]

The short answer is: Oregon’a automatic registration law isn’t about to spread like wildfire to other states, where most legislatures and governors are trying to make it harder, not easier, for citizens to vote. Ballot measures in the states may be a way for other states to adopt the Oregon approach. But if the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case dealing with legislative re-districting, limits what voters can do to change electoral laws, the Oregon measure is even less likely to spread. Still, if you favor gains in voter turnout, Oregon’s effort is an inspiration.

(Maybe ALEC, the aggressive and wildly successful, conservative organization that provides model legislation for its ideological comrades in state legislatures, will make automatic voting spring up all over the U.S.    Just kidding, of course).

By almost any gauge, the state of Oregon took a radical step toward making it possible for every citizen over the age of eighteen to vote. The State passed a law which automatically registers everyone who has official contact with its motor vehicle department (DMV). The Oregon law allows an automatically registered voter to opt out. Of course, non-citizens won’t be registered.

You may recall the 1993 federal measure, dubbed “Motor-Voter,” requiring state DMVs to provide opportunities for voter registration.  Motor-Voter is an ancestor of the Oregon law. In retrospect, that law, maybe radical for it’s time, was toothless and passive by comparison. Oregon’s measure can rightly be called “Motor -Voter” on steroids.

A few say Oregon wimped out by not making voting compulsory, like in Australia.  Deep skepticism about the value of every citizen voting is in America’s DNA, starting with our Constitution. If every state adopted the Oregon method, another 50 million people would be (automatically) eligible to vote. That would elate some, and horrify others.

As mentioned earlier, Oregon didn’t go as far as Australia, and about ten other democracies in the world that legally require citizens to vote.  Does compulsory voting sound excessive? Perhaps. But In Australia you wouldn’t have a situation, like in the 2014 U.S. mid term elections, where about 18 to 25 percent of the adult citizenry (depending how you calculate it), gave Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and two additional governorships.

Rarely have any of our President’s, D’s or R’s, been elected by more than 30 to 35 percent of voting eligible citizens.  Even if a candidate garners 60% of the vote, with barely 60% turnout, just 35% of the electorate has made the decision — and that’s in a “landslide” and in a high turnout year.

Don’t look for legislatures and governors in any fiery red states, or for that matter, Wisconsin or Ohio, to jump on the Oregon band wagon. But, in theory, people in some states can push for something like the new Oregon automatic registration law through ballot measures.

Can that work?  Perhaps, in a few places, and with a lot of effort and money. But reformists will encounter opposition lawyers who say the U.S. Constitution empowers only state “legislative bodies” to change electoral laws; that “the people” acting through initiatives or referenda are not legislative bodies, and thus can’t change electoral systems on their own.

That’s precisely the argument in a case out of Arizona, recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. It involves a voter approved ballot measure which empowered an “independent commission,” rather than sitting legislators, to draw state legislative and congressional district boundary lines. It’s a highly worthy effort to prevent politicians from perpetuating their power.  (I expect the Supreme Court to over turn it).

The outcome of that case may have enormous implications for representative government in the U.S., not only for re-districting.  It can also determine whether automatic voter registration has any chance at all to spread beyond the Pacific Northwest in the foreseeable future.

U.S. voter participation has always been tepid.  For most of the nation’s history,  the Constitution and state laws denied the vote to women, blacks, and citizens under 21. Even white males who didn’t own property couldn’t legally vote in all U.S. states till 1856.  Even as legal barriers to voting were stripped away by amendments to the U.S and state Constitutions, and by Acts of Congress, voter participation rates in the U.S. have lagged behind, and still trail, those in nearly all other advanced (genuinely) democratic polities.

In the halcyon, “Leave it to Beaver,” days of the 1950s and early 60s, most political scientists thought low voter turnout in the U.S. was a good thing — that it signified Americans’ satisfaction with their economic conditions, government, and direction of the country. All was well; there were no rascals to throw out. There may have been some (minimal and perfunctory) truth to that in the 1950s.

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14 thoughts on “Automatic Voter Registration: Is Oregon’s New Law a Game Changer?

  1. alex maclachlan

    I think low voter turn out is more an illustration of apathy. Not that people don’t care, more they think their opinion is not wanted or heard and possess no power to change the course special interests have carved out for themselves.

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    1. Irv Lefberg

      I think you’re right about apathy. The mechanics are one part of the low turnout, but yes apathy is the other. Perhaps a bigger factor. As part of that I think people are just numbed out and disgusted by the corseness (is that a word) of politics today. I think both R’s and D’s would agree with that, but blame most of it on the other. Politics has alwAys been corse, crude and viscious. It’s just that today we see and hear about it 24/7.

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  2. Norm Olson

    This time I agree with Alex. How many times can we get hit over the head with nasty, extremely-partisan politicking, The extremists only want the other side to fail and the success of our Country ends up as not as important. I don’t have the money to buy a politician. I will always vote but my vote won’t count as much as the person with the money. Is that called apathy or giving up?

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    1. Irv Lefberg

      Well said Norm. I really do agree with both you and Alex on the apathy factor. Today that might be more responsible for low turnout than the process hurdles to voting. My only addition here is that I think what you and Alex describe goes beyond apathy to include disgust, alienation , anger at the entire political establishment , loss of hope that the pols can get their acts together. OMG, I just got myself really depressed

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      1. alex maclachlan

        Yes, Irv describes the all of the above reasons for voter disgust, apathy, anger, etc etc etc. It’s like you can’t get one group of common good minded, selfless people who respect American tradition, the Constitution with Bill of Rights, mixed with modern human evolution, without being totally outnumbered by selfish, “my team” oriented ladder climbers, willing to stomp on all of the above for their own financial and career advancement. The worst among them get promoted while the principled get stomped as “non team players”. I’m not using code language, its both sides for the same reasons using different allies. We should be sticking up for the individuals, but they get squashed my the group think / mob mentality team players

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  3. Russ Lehman

    Irv, again important topic and worthy of much discussion…and even more, action.
    I think the temptation to list the parade of horribles that is our current politics is a misplaced exercise. Of course apathy is a part of the woeful electoral participation numbers. And, of course there are multiple reasons for the apathy: selfishness, rancour and overall lack of leadership; media deterioration; attention deficit disorder (D.C. media and public), the corruption of money in politics: and many others. Also, as this piece points out, the mechanics of the electoral process is often purposefully designed to limit participation.
    All those things, and many others are surely present and serve to disengage voters and increase apathy. It seems to be that even with the presence of all those factors though, to excuse our pitiful participation numbers and blame entirely external factors allows us to avoid full responsibility for our (in)actions. Above, a commenter wrote “Not that people don’t care, more they think their opinion is not wanted or heard and possess no power to change the course special interests have carved out for themselves.” The prevailing sentiment here is, while certainly common throughout the land, sort of like the serial junk food eater claiming powerlessness to change. “It’s all that advertising man that makes me eat 3 burgers and 4 cokes a day”.
    With all the reasons why participation is low, and as some here even seem to find them not only understandable but maybe even excusable, the beauty of our system is in fact that we really do have all the power. Everything that plagues us now, some listed here above, can absolutely be ended/reformed tomorrow if in fact the people were to demand it. With participation rates so low it is highly likely that all of us know far more people who didn’t vote in the last election than did so. When people stand up, be counted and let their voices be heard change will occur. It seems to me that only when that happens and no change results should we blame others.
    “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

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    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Thanks, Russ. Good insights, as usual, into what’s (really) plaguing us. Yes, “we the people” have the capacity to make “change that we can believe in.”  But we do need something on ballots, or new candidates in elections, or new parties with messages that get people motivated. Where will that come from? Not from Hillary and Bush, me thinks. In parliamentary systems (and where money is not has overwhelmingly important as in US), small parties can make it onto ballots, based on large or small ideas, and then grow over time. And even if they never become Conservative or Labor, they often have real influence on the major parties. Am in somewhat pessimistic mood, where I don’t see how this happens under our current system. At least the Oregon law addressed the mechanics part of it, Will be interesting to see what effect it has. Thanks, Russ, for reminding us to look in the mirror. Irv

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  4. kurtjl

    Imagine one puppeteer [the oligarchy: organized money, K-Street, etc.] holding and pulling the strings of both parties, using mouths of the puppets to push the emotional hot buttons of auto-think partisans, while the puppeteer has actual control of how elections are funded and controlled, and the puppeteer has control of how legislation is written.

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    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Well,Kurt, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, here your 50 words (or so) is a narrative that can reap a nice little body of photographic images to tell the story you’ve been yearning to tell for some time. You and an up and coming Jim Henson could really make that happen.

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      1. kurtjl

        Irv, yes.

        Something like a Doonesbury comic strip of images. Maybe a Koch Brother could be the iconoclastic oligarch/plutocrat as the puppeteer, and Bush-3 and Clinton-2 could be the two puppets, and Schumer and Boehner can deliver the legislation for the oligarchy, and the 47%-47% can imagine they’ve voted their “values.”

        We can label the strip “American Exceptionalism 2015”.

        Then we can take it to a coffee shop in Escondido and do an impromptu focus-group study to see who recognizes it all.

        ;~{)

        Cheers, Kurt

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  5. Norm Olson

    One other possible reason for low voting turnout may be laziness which is the first cousin of apathy. My own opinion is that voting should be as easy as possible. Now I know that there is the “Chicago Style” of voting where all of the cemeteries are polled but I don’t know how much of that is now just a cliche. Accounts in the news of voter fraud have been scarce in the past number of years. The first years I voted in San Diego I walked six doors down and voted in a neighbor’s garage. I considered that to be unique. After that I voted by absentee mail which I think is a great. In California we don’t have to give a reason why we won’t be at the polls. Other states are not that kind. I can sit in my recliner with my ballot and my laptop computer and research the candidates. I would expect that almost all of us in this discussion probably already have strong opinions about the next presidential election but how about the local judges? Those are just obscure names. But at least I can research them and see if they have hit the media radar or not. I cannot do that at the polls unless I know beforehand who will be on the ballet.

    Admittedly, I have not done the research to show that ease of voting is a major factor in the percentage who vote. I would expect it has an effect but I cannot quote chapter and verse.

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    1. alex maclachlan

      Norm, I suspect it won’t be long until young people will be target marketed to download the “Voter App” so they will get 10 reminders on election day, that it’s election day, so that maybe just maybe, they’ll switch from the video game massacre happening on their phone long enough to select a candidate for President.

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      1. Irv Lefberg Post author

        Norm, Alex… thanks for further comments. Yeah, “laziness” is closely connected with apathy. It is difficult for some working people or students to vote, even if polls remain open till 8:00. If you;’re a single mom with a kid, work all day, then have to go pick up kid at day care, are you going to want to wait on a long line to vote? I think Alex is right on with the technology and where its likely to go in near future, to practically place the ballot in front of your face on your ipad. Or at least urge you to go vote, and set up a ride for you with Uber Lyft (of whatever its called). We’re almost there. Both R’s and D’s now have access to massive amount of voting data (from election agencies), In last two elections they found ways to send (spam) email to many voters, reminding them to vote; and in some cases even telling them where polling places were. Yikes. And Spooky,

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  6. kurtjl


    Teddy Roosevelt understood the role of leadership that led the “the average man” through “popular rule” — hey, it got him on Mt. Rushmore as the new guy.

    “For years I accepted the theory, as most of the rest of us then accepted it, that we already had popular government; that this was a government by the people. I believed the power of the boss was due only to the indifference and short-sightedness of the average decent citizen. Gradually it came over me that while this was half the truth, it was only half the truth, and that while the boss owed part of his power to the fact that the average man did not do his duty, yet that there was the further fact to be considered, that for the average man it had already been made very difficult instead of very easy for him to do his duty. I grew to feel a keen interest in the machinery for getting adequate and genuine popular rule, chiefly because I found that we could not get social and industrial justice without popular rule…” TR

    So Teddy understood the role of leadership in his time and conditions. Who is going to lead now? Certainly there’s no Teddy (R) or FDR (D) running today.

    Rand Paul is copping out (re. his flip-flop on excessive military-industrial complex spending). Bush-3 and Clinton-2 are oligarchy wannabes. Warren isn’t ready.

    Jim Webb? http://www.jameswebb.com/

    …and Americans aren’t waking themselves up on their own. It seems like the main thing we’re missing is true leadership on the order of Teddy or FDR. We’re missing the “wake up America” populist leadership they provided.

    So I support groups like “Money Out, Voters In” http://www.moneyoutvotersin.org/ — at least they recognize the corrupt state America is in and are trying to do something to change FUBAR systemic corruption like “Citizens United”.

    Cheers, Kurt

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