A bill that could register as many as 600,000 new Oregon voters is in danger of dying without a vote. The state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kate Brown, wants anyone who gets a new driver’s license, or renews an existing one, to be automatically registered to vote. Brown argues that more registered voters promotes a stronger democracy: 2.8 million Oregonians are eligible to vote but only 2.2 million are registered, a registration rate Brown calls “mediocre.” Supporters say the bill should be zinging its way through the Legislature, appealing to citizens who want to limit their dealings with bureaucracy. “It’s a great concept,” says Paul Gronke, chairman of the political science department at Reed College. “Why would anybody want citizens to appear in government offices twice instead of just once?”
The bill has partisan implications. Unregistered voters tend to be younger and Hispanic, who tilt toward the Democratic Party—which could add to the Democrats’ 183,000-voter registration edge over Republicans.
Yet Brown has failed to pull together the needed votes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats. The bill is still stuck in committee and may never reach the House or Senate floors before the 2013 session adjourns, probably some time this month. Democratic leaders are reluctant to have members vote on a controversial measure without a guarantee it will pass.
The secretary of state’s office says no other state uses driver’s licenses for automatic voter registration. Eleven states, including Maine and Minnesota, which lead the nation in eligible voter participation, have same-day registration. (With vote-by-mail, same-day registration would not work here.) North Dakota is the easiest state in which to vote—no registration is required.
The potential for aiding Democratic voter rolls is one reason GOP officials have come out against the measure.
“We’ve never said that out loud,” says former Republican Party of Oregon spokesman Greg Leo, who has twice testified against the bill in committee hearings. “But what this bill would do is allow Democrats to rebuild the kind of registration advantage they had before the 2008 election.”