Last week Oregon became the first state in the nation to pass a law that will automatically register citizens to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license. Instead of being forced to register to vote, Oregonians with a driver’s license will now have to register not to vote.
Newly registered voters under the law will have to opt out to avoid receiving a ballot in the mail — meaning if they want to skirt the electoral process, they’ll have to try a little harder.
If the goal of democracy is to inspire participation from as many as possible, the move — championed by new Gov. Kate Brown, the state’s former Secretary of State — is heavy-handed. It is also forward-thinking.
In a state with some 800,000 eligible but unregistered voters, the new law is expected to bring at least half those folks onto the voter rolls. Whether these people end up voting or not, of course, is another question. But at least the act of not casting a ballot will be the result of a deliberate decision.
Just don’t expect something similar to happen in Washington anytime soon.
That’s not because people aren’t intrigued by the idea. Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, whose office is nonpartisan, tells me she finds Oregon’s new law “very exciting.” That’s no surprise, considering just over 35 percent of the voting age population in Pierce County actually cast a ballot in the 2014 election. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, says she believes “democracy is healthiest when you have the broadest participation.”
Meanwhile, Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at UCLA (and formerly the University of Washington), whose research has been widely used by lawyers challenging voter-ID laws across the country, says Oregon’s new registration law “is a great step forward in improving the democratic process.” He believes minorities and young people “stand to gain the most” from the new legislation.
Unless you have an interest in young people and minorities not voting because you don’t like how they vote, that’s a worthy goal. To put the potential impact into a local perspective, I asked Ben Anderstone, a political consultant with Progressive Strategies Northwest with a history of doing this sort of thing, to crunch the numbers.
Anderstone’s unsurprising conclusion: “Lower turnout neighborhoods in Pierce County tend to be younger, poorer, and less white.”
Admittedly, increasing the participation of neighborhoods with historically low turnout has the potential to influence elections. Using the 2010 midterms as an example — which occurred not long after the Census Bureau measured Pierce County population by voting precinct — Anderstone found that, “heavily Republican precincts had a healthy 52-percent turnout among voting-age population (defined as the number of voters divided by the number adults),” while “heavily Democratic precincts had only 34-percent turnout.” As an example, he says this trend likely contributed to Republican Dino Rossi’s thin margin of victory in Pierce County over U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat.
But this isn’t an argument about changing election results, and voter registration shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This is simply an argument about increasing participation. Even Anderstone is quick to caution that while, “The polls generally show that, if everyone turned out, Democrats would benefit by a few percentage points,” he also notes that those who aren’t currently voting “are almost certainly more Democratic, but not necessarily more liberal” — meaning they’re likely to support Democratic candidates, but not necessarily something like same-sex marriage.
The hurdle to following Oregon’s model, Wyman says, is that we’ve been progressive in another arena. Washington is one of just a handful of states in the nation that gives driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country without legal permission. According to Wyman, that — and the fact that there’s no state or federal database of U.S. citizenship for the state to automatically crosscheck against — is why Oregon’s new approach is currently unfeasible in our state.
It’s not that she believes such immigrants would suddenly flock to the polls, mind you, it’s that there would be no way to prove they weren’t. “Elections are about perception as much as they’re about reality,” she tells me. “My job is to make people on both of those extremes have confidence in the system we have.”
Wyman has a point. Her job is to run Washington’s elections with integrity. But there are ways around her concerns, and — to her credit — she says she’s open to such discussions.
Anderson says changing driver’s licensing laws and addressing eligibility concerns would allow for an automatic registration law. Registering an additional 28 percent of the voting age population in Pierce County could yield an additional 174,407 voters. “Assuming, optimistically, that these newly-registered voters participate at the same rate as other voters, we’d have an additional 69,700 votes added to the 2015 General Election,” Anderson says. “That’s a lot of voices otherwise not heard from.”
It certainly is. As a state, part of ensuring the ultimate integrity of our process is making sure everyone has a voice, or at least has an easy ability to speak up if they so choose. In that way, we’d be wise to follow Oregon’s lead and include as many people as possible.