PORTLAND — Oregon’s groundbreaking automatic voter registration system has led to big increases in the number of people voting.
But passage of a controversial bill allowing undocumented residents to get an Oregon driver’s license could also have the unintended effect of eroding the effectiveness of automatic voter registration.
In addition, legislators this year made a small budget cut that could make it more cumbersome for newly registered voters to join a political party — or to even opt out of being registered at all.
John Lindback, a national elections expert who once headed Oregon’s election division, said officials and activists will have to take several steps to ensure the state doesn’t backslide on signing people up to vote.
“People are going to be concerned about maintaining the kind of success Oregon has attained,” said Lindback, a senior adviser for the Center for Secure and Modern Elections.
Since 2015, Oregon has automatically registered voters using driver’s license data, which shows whether someone is a citizen and thereby eligible to vote. People are provisionally registered when they get a license, and then sent a letter asking whether they want to opt out — something only around 5% choose to do.
As a result, the number of registered voters has skyrocketed by nearly 25% since the system came into effect in 2016. And the number of people returning ballots has increased almost as dramatically.
Now, some of those gains are being called into question by a measure allowing undocumented residents and other people who lack the documents needed to prove U.S. citizenship to get driver’s licenses.
Under the new law, Oregonians will be offered two types of licenses in 2021.
They can opt for a so-called Real ID that meets new federal standards and will allow holders to fly commercially and enter U.S. government installations. Or they can obtain a license that shows they are qualified to drive but won’t show whether they are in the country legally or not. Democratic lawmakers argued the new law would improve road safety and help undocumented residents get to work and take their kids to school.
Lindback said he is concerned many citizens in Oregon won’t opt for the Real ID license. That’s because they are expected to cost more. Plus, many people can’t or don’t want to dig up the documentation — such as a birth certificate — showing they are a citizen.
As a result, the number of people swept into the automatic voter registration system could steadily decline.
On top of that, legislators also cut $75,000 out of the secretary of state’s budget to provide prepaid postage for newly registered voters who want to opt out register with a political party. (If prospective voters do nothing, they are registered as non-affiliated.)
That move has drawn the ire of activists, who helped push for the creation of automatic voter registration.
“Basically, it will create a barrier to participation,” said Samantha Gladu, executive director of Portland-based Next Up. The group, formerly known as the Bus Project, seeks to involve young people in liberal political causes.
Gladu said the lack of prepaid postage makes it more cumbersome for voters to register in one of the major political parties. That’s necessary if they want to participate in partisan primary elections.
There are already several efforts to restore the $75,000 in funding, including pressure from Gov. Kate Brown, according to her staff. Gladu said she also plans to push legislators to put the money back in.
Steve Trout, the current Oregon elections director, said he’s seen no indication so far that the lack of prepaid postage is reducing the percentage of new registrants who opt out or sign up for a party.
But he said his office would monitor it to see if changes should be recommended. And he noted that prospective voters can also go online to register with a party once their registration takes effect.
The secretary of state’s office had initially mentioned the $75,000 reduction in its proposed budget as one way to cut costs. Legislators took that idea with little discussion and put it into the agency’s final budget.
The bigger question is how to respond to the prospect of fewer Oregonians being automatically registered through the DMV.
The governor and her political allies have long been interested in expanding the voter registration system to include data gathered by other state agencies, such as the Oregon Health Authority. That agency provides services to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians through Medicaid and also collects citizenship data.
Nikki Fisher, a spokeswoman for Brown, said in a statement that the governor is “looking for ways to expand our already existing AVR program to ensure we capture as many eligible voters as possible, in part to mitigate any impacts” from the legislation.
Massachusetts, Colorado and Rhode Island are already moving toward getting data from other government agencies, Lindback said. Among other things, he said, this approach can reach people — often poorer — who may not even have a driver’s license.
Trout, the state elections director, said his agency will also be working with Oregon DMV to once again offer people a chance to register to vote while they’re getting a license.
The elections director said he warned the governor’s office and legislators that the measure for undocumented residents “would be a rollback of the automatic voter registration process.”
Gladu, whose group supported both automatic voter registration and the bill to aid undocumented residents, said she thought both goals were important. And she said she’s confident Oregon will take the steps needed to keep a strong automatic registration system.