By: Matthew Hubbard
Voter identification laws of various forms, which are currently enforced in 32 states, continue to garner significant national media attention and spark contentious debate. Proponents argue that the laws prevent voter fraud and preserve the legitimacy of the electoral process while opponents claim that in-person voter fraud is a phantom problem and that these claims are merely pretext for partisan vote suppression. As the public attention and debate surrounding these voting restrictions increases, however, one state has managed to quietly pass legislation that moves as far as possible in the opposite direction.
Earlier this year Oregon passed House Bill 2177, which creates a new system of voter registration where everyone with a state driver’s license or state identification is automatically registered to vote and automatically sent election ballots by mail. The law is titled the New Motor Voter Act as it expands on the existing Motor Voter Act, a federal statute that already requires DMVs and social service agencies to provide voter registration for customers. The New Motor Voter Act is the first of its kind in the country, and is projected to add approximately 300,000 new registered voters to Oregon’s rolls. Oregon is no stranger to progressive election laws; in 1998 it became the first state and is currently one of only two to implement an entirely mail-in voting system. Largely in part to the mail-in system, Oregon has an average voter turnout of just over 60%, which is 8.5% more than the national average and the sixth highest of any state in the country.
While the motor voter law has received minor coverage outside of the state of Oregon, its passage was contentious inside the state, particularly within the state legislature where the law was passed strictly along party lines.
Opponents make several arguments in opposition to the new system, but interestingly the increased likelihood of voter fraud was not a main issue when the bill was being debated. One main reason for this could be the success of the mail-in voting system, which has bipartisan support. Additionally, since 2000 only 13 cases of voter fraud have been brought during a time period where 24 million ballots were mailed in to the state. Some claim that there is a potential for implementation errors in the new system to cause multiple ballots to be accidentally sent to the same person, which may be too tempting to resist. A key to the potential success of this system as a model for other states may be whether voting fraud statistics are able to remain level.
The principle argument against the system is that the transfer of data between the state DMV and the secretary of state’s office could be a target for identification theft. While proponents point to specific privacy safeguards included in the law, including protected status preventing data transfer for certain people such as domestic violence victims. It is unclear how effective the transfer and protective measures will be, however, until the law is implemented.
Another common argument against the law is that illegal immigrants might be able to register more easily. While the rhetoric may be inflammatory to public perception of the new system, the law will actually strengthen protections against non-citizen voting. While registering to vote in Oregon only requires a written assertion of citizenship, to obtain a driver’s license an applicant must demonstrate proof of citizenship.
While there are several potential problems with Oregon’s new motor voter law, what is undisputed is that the new system will enable the automatic registration of a massive number of eligible voters. Additionally, the Oregon law comes at a time when states like Alabama are enacting voter identification laws while at the same time systematically closing driver’s license offices. As a majority of the country continues to focus on laws that make voting more difficult, it will be important to track the progress of Oregon and its groundbreaking measures to make voting as easy as possible.