For more than a decade, voting rights advocates have been on the defensive. They’ve resisted one effort after another to restrict access to the polls, efforts that got new life following the Florida election fiasco of 2000, when a large black turnout almost (or maybe did) put Al Gore over the top in the Sunshine State, and that reached full force following Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Between the 2010 and 2012 elections alone, governors signed into law 23 bills that imposed constraints on voting, including requiring photo ID at the polls and curtailing same-day registration and early voting. While there have been defensive victories here and there, the resistance has been futile in many states and not helped by the Supreme Court, which in 2008 ruled in favor of voter ID laws and in 2013 gutted key elements of the Voting Rights Act. But now, at least in one state, the voting rights camp is on the offensive, and it’s hard to overstate what a pivotal turn that represents in the nation’s long-running voting wars. Oregon’s new governor, Kate Brown, the former secretary of state who took over following the resignation of her fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, has made headlines for being the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, but the bill she signed Monday is far more significant.
The new law radically modernizes the voter registration process in the state, such that Oregonians will be automatically registered to vote based on information the Department of Motor Vehicles has in its electronic files (which crucially includes whether someone is a citizen or just a permanent resident and thus ineligible to vote). Under the “Motor Voter” law of 1993, Americans gained the ability to register to vote at DMVs and other government offices, but the burden was still on them to fill out paperwork and update registration statuses with name and address changes. The Oregon law puts the burden on the state, not the individual (who may still ask to be removed from the rolls if he or she prefers), and in so doing operates on the same logic as automatically enrolling workers in a 401(k) with the option to opt out, rather than waiting for them to sign up: The default approach gets more sign-ups.
Oregon’s law turns the tables: It asserts that voting is an inherent right of citizenship.
Other states have improved their registration processes so that information passes electronically from DMVs to voting registrars rather than being sent over in paper forms to be transcribed (or mistranscribed, as often is the case). But only Oregon is taking the default approach and looking through its existing records for those who are eligible but unregistered, which is expected to net at least 300,000 more people on the voting rolls right away. “Lots of people capture who comes in tomorrow—but they capture who’s in the database already,” says Myrna Pérez of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for voting rights. “It strikes a good balance—the government should take responsibility for registration, take advantage of available and reliable lists, and use those lists to improve our democracy.”