Last Thursday, House Bill 2177, the “New Motor Voter Bill,” passed the Oregon Senate following passage on Feb. 20 in the House. Gov. Kate Brown has said she’ll sign the legislation; it was a signature piece of legislation for her while secretary of state and was introduced at her request in each of the last two legislative sessions. Oregon’s move makes sense given the national movement to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the voter registration system in the United States. Our current voter registration system is costly, inaccurate and antiquated. And there is no doubt that the barriers to registration depress voter turnout by keeping otherwise eligible voters from the polls. … Keeping these records up to date is very costly. A 2008 study in our own state of Oregon found that the government spends $4.11 per active voter to maintain current records and $7.67 to add new records. The total bill to the Oregon taxpayers was nearly $9 million!
With those figures, it sounds like automatic voter registration is a good thing; it creates a voter registration system that is easier for citizens, less expensive for the taxpayers and less prone to inaccuracy. Moreover, voter registration is not enshrined in our Constitution. As Harvard historian Alex Keyssar has shown, it was only implemented in the 19th century as a method to disenfranchise first poor and foreign-born, and later African American citizens.
So why, then, did every single Republican in the Oregon House and Senate oppose the bill, and all but one Democrat (Scappoose’s Sen. Betsy Johnson, who opposed it last time) support the bill? The answer is that election administration and reform — both here in Oregon and nationwide — have become one more front in the all-out legal and political melee that law professor Rick Hasen calls the “Voting Wars.”