Tag Archives: voter turnout

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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Talking with Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa About the Minimum Wage

Capitol Building; the Other Washington

Capitol Building; the Other Washington

Every cent and precious time spent by progressives in California that is not dedicated to voter registration and turnout is a questionable use of resources for their cause. Put another way, the top three strategies for their agenda should be: (1) voter registration and turnout, (2) voter registration and turnout, and (3) voter registration and turnout; with emphasis on the Latino population. Everything else should be on a back burner, at least so far as 2014 is concerned.

This is neither rocket science, nor an especially original insight. But, I make a point of it because here in the San Diego area, where I live, I see national and local groups right now devoting a lot of effort to advance progressive (liberal, Democrat) causes, like the minimum wage, immigration reform, climate change, economic inequality, or health insurance, by spending a lot of time trying to change hearts and minds.

That is of course admirable. How can anyone question focusing on the issues in an era where attack ads are the main tool of political campaigns. I realize that many activities related to voter registration and turnout are more appropriate and effective the closer you get to the election date; and that getting “your” voters excited about an issue is one way to get them to the polls.

But, if I was directing strategy for progressives in San Diego County, I would seriously question whether a letter writing campaign to Representatives Duncan Hunter and Darryl Issa, asking them to support a higher minimum wage, is worth more than a laser beam focus to register voters; even accepting that October/November is a ways off.  I would err (greatly) on the side of turnout; the rest takes care of itself.  Besides, the California hourly minimum wage is already scheduled to rise to $9.00 per hour starting July 2014; and to $10.00 in 2016; just ten cents below the President’s proposal.

The needle on Latino turnout has a lot more room to move than the one on policy, either for elected officials or (already registered and engaged) voters.  Latinos represent a large percentage of the population in California, but a much smaller proportion of registered and participating voters. For the state as a whole, Latinos accounted for nearly 40% of the population in 2012, but just 20% of voters. In off year elections, the Latino segment of the voting population tends to drop by about 5 percentage points. About 75% of Latinos in California voted for Democrats in 2012.   Again, there is much more room to move the needle on voting participation than policy.

If progressives here persist in their idealistic plans to engage Messrs. Hunter and Issa directly on issues like minimum wage or the President’s overall economic agenda, I would advise they skip the arguments about why those policies are good for the economy.
Skip that entirely, and appeal to their conscience about the workings of representative government.  Just (respectfully) request they, and their caucus colleagues in the House, allow an up or down vote on matters like minimum wage, immigration or an infrastructure bank. Just an up or down vote on bills coming over from the Senate.

That approach hasn’t got much more of a chance to affect Hunter’s or Issa’s votes than the issue oriented discussion, but at least it shows some sophistication on the advocates’ part,, and thus the capacity to be formidable down the road.  Progressives should devote the  freed-up resources to the three things that matter most: turnout, turnout, and turnout; not necessarily in that order.

If conservatives want my unsolicited advice on strategy in San Diego — the advice to progressives was also unsolicited —  I would point to the recently successful Faulconer mayoral campaign in San Diego,  Faulconer downplayed his Republican affiliations and appealed to moderates.  Democrats were not able,  as they were in 2012,  to turn out the Latino vote.   Of course, it didn’t hurt that the election was being held to fill the vacancy caused by a Democratic mayor who was accused of serial sexual harassment.   Nothing that R’s can do strategically to induce that set of circumstances.  My own take was that the reputation of the deposed mayor was less of a factor in the race than weak Latino turnout,  compared with 2012; and an inexperienced opposition candidate.