“I forgot to register.” It’s one of the frequently cited reasons that people give every year for not voting in America, as well as a convenient excuse that the state of Oregon this week took it away from its citizens. Under a law signed Monday by new Governor Kate Brown, any eligible Oregonian with a driver’s license will be automatically registered to vote and will receive a ballot by mail weeks before Election Day. The measure is the first of its kind in the nation, and state officials project it will add 300,000 people to a voter roll that now numbers about 2.2 million. Oregon has long been an early adopter of new voting methods, having shifted to an entirely vote-by-mail system in 1998. Passage of the law, which was supported by Democrats, marks a rare recent win for proponents of expanded access to the ballot box at a time when states are moving toward more restrictive measures. The U.S. has an embarrassingly low rate of voter participation, setting it apart from other democracies in the developed world; just over one-third of eligible voters showed up in 2014, and even in the relatively high turnout election of 2008, the participation rate was only 64 percent. Yet the debate over the Oregon “motor voter” law was contentious, and it hinged on a key question: How far should the government go to encourage citizens to register and vote?
“It should be convenient and very easy, but it shouldn’t be the law,” argued Knute Buehler, a Republican state representative in Oregon. The automatic registration bill passed through both houses of the legislature on a party-line vote, and in a phone interview Thursday, Buehler said the law “replaces individual convenience with government coercion.” Supporters, including Governor Brown, say it does nothing of the sort. Oregonians will have the opportunity to opt out of automatic registration, and even if they don’t, nothing is forcing them to return the actual ballot they receive in the mail.
Unlike Australia, voting isn’t compulsory anywhere in the U.S.—at least not yet. President Obama drew attention on Wednesday when, while answering a question on campaign finance reform, he brought up the idea of mandatory voting and said it would be “transformative” for the country. That isn’t where Brown wants to go in Oregon, she told me.