A parade of Republican-controlled states in recent years has made it more difficult to cast a ballot, imposing strict identification requirements at polling stations, paring back early-voting periods and requiring proof of citizenship to register. Then there is Oregon. It is leading what could become a march in the opposite direction. From January through April, Oregon added nearly 52,000 new voters to its rolls by standing the usual voter-registration process on its head. Under a new law, most citizens no longer need to fill out and turn in a form to become a voter. Instead, everyone who visits a motor-vehicle bureau and meets the requirements is automatically enrolled. Choosing a political party — or opting out entirely — is a matter of checking off preferences on a postcard mailed later to registrants’ homes. With the change, Oregon now boasts perhaps the nation’s most painless electoral process; mail-in ballots long ago did away with polling places’ snaking lines and balky voting machines
Whether painless equals effective, however, is another question. For while officials here hope automatic registration fuels a jump in voter turnout, the results of experiments elsewhere and the statistics from last month’s Oregon presidential primary — the first in which the new voters could cast ballots — have been decidedly mixed. Getting more people registered, it seems, does not necessarily mean getting more people to vote.
Regardless, Oregon’s example is gaining traction. California, Vermont, West Virginia, and this week Illinois have followed Oregon in enacting automatic-registration laws; none have yet been put in effect. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have considered similar measures since last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
“I think states like Oregon, West Virginia and the others deserve a lot of credit for trying to bring voting rights into the 21st century,” said David Becker, the director of election initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts.