Americans are required to register if they want to vote; as of this week, Oregonians will have to register not to.
In front of a packed and cheering audience Monday, Gov. Kate Brown signed a first-in-the-nation bill to automatically register all eligible Oregonians to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or state identification card.
Those who are registered through the new process will be notified by mail and will be given three weeks to take themselves off the voting rolls. If they do not opt out, the secretary of state’s office will mail them a ballot automatically 20 days before any election.
When Brown signed House Bill 2177 into law, she was building on the Beaver State’s history as a ballot-box innovator, which has led to high voter participation. Oregon was the first state in the country to switch to all-mail voting when Ballot Measure 60 was passed in 1998 by a wide margin. Washington state and Colorado later followed suit.
“In my role as secretary of state, I proposed a new way of registering to vote,” Brown said as she signed the bill. “We call it ‘new motor voter.’ It was my top priority, and I am absolutely thrilled to be signing this into law as the new governor. ... Virtually every Oregonian will be able to have their voice be heard.”
Brown stepped down as secretary of state and was sworn in to Oregon’s highest elected office last month, after then-Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid scandal. As secretary of state — and even earlier, as a state legislator — she championed increasing access to the ballot box.
“This bill is about making government work better, treating citizens as customers and giving them access to the service they expect,” she said Monday. “When someone moves to Oregon, why should they have to fill out multiple forms for multiple agencies? They should be able to complete one form, one time.”
Currently, there are about 2.2 million registered voters in Oregon, said Tony Green, spokesman for Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, and an additional 800,000 are not registered but eligible. The new law is expected to bring nearly half of those onto the voter rolls.
Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, called Oregon’s new law “a groundbreaking innovation.”
“Oregon takes it further than any other state by putting the burden on the government,” said Perez, whose organization is part of New York University School of Law. “Instead of asking voters, ‘Do you want to register to vote?’ they ask voters, ‘Do you not want to vote?’”
Brown said the new law would modernize how the state Transportation Department’s Driver and Motor Vehicle services division and the secretary of state’s office function.
Oregon already requires people seeking a driver’s license to show that they are citizens or legal residents, Green said, and the DMV distinguishes between the two. For any citizen seeking a license, that information will automatically be sent on to the secretary of state’s office.
In addition, citizens who have sought a license, renewed a license or changed an address since 2013 will also have their information sent to the secretary of state’s election division, which will notify them that they are eligible to vote.
At that point, Green said, “you can opt out, affiliate with a party, or do nothing and you are registered to vote.”
For those who are already registered to vote, he said, “there will be no change. But if you move, your information will be automatically transferred. You don’t have to manually re-register. You only have to do one thing — change your driver's license address.”
The change was not universally embraced. HB 2177 passed both chambers of the state Legislature without a single Republican vote in its favor. Some worried about privacy matters and others wondered why it was necessary to make registration even easier.
Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher said in a statement this month that she was “very disappointed” that the bill passed. She said she voted against it because it “will expose Oregon citizens’ private information” and put victims of sexual assault and stalking at risk.
Supporters of the bill said the state already has safeguards for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and that the new law will not make their private information public.
“During testimony on the bill, a legislator said to me, ‘It’s already so easy to register in Oregon, why would we make it easier?’” Brown recounted as she signed the measure. “My answer is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost-effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians.
“Why wouldn’t we?”