Oregon’s Radical Innovation: Make Democracy Easy

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Oregon’s Radical Innovation: Make Democracy Easy

Drivers line up to drop off ballots on November 3, 2014 in Portland, Oregon. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Here is a novel notion: Why not make democracy easy?

Why not take the trouble out of registering to vote—and out of voting?

It can be done. Other countries, where voter turnout is dramatically higher than in the United States, craft their laws to encourage voting.

Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of voting-friendly elections in the United States.

At least in most states.

It is no secret that these have not been easy times for the cause of voting rights.

An activist majority on the US Supreme Court has invalidated key sections of the Voting Rights Act, and the traditional defenders of the franchise—Congressmen John Conyers, D-Michigan, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin—are struggling to renew the bipartisan coalition in support of robust protection for free and fair elections.

Beyond Washington, the debate frequently takes a turn for the worse. According to a Brennan Center review last year, almost two dozen states have since 2010 enacted laws making it "harder to vote." And that is only the beginning of the story; The Nation recently reported that, "From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states."

Lots of bad news for democracy, to be sure.

But not all bad news.

Some states have acted to expand voting rights—and get high-turnout elections to shape governments that reflect the will of the people.

Famously, Oregon has since 1998 used a vote-by-mail model as the standard mechanism for voting. (Washington state and Colorado now do the same.)

The results have been pretty impressive for Oregon: In 2014, while voter turnout nationally was just 36 percent, Oregon voter turnout was well over 50 percent.

The Oregon Secretary of State at the time of the 2014 election was an enthusiastic pro-democracy campaigner named Kate Brown. After the state again registered some of the best voter-participation numbers in the nation, Brown explained that, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail. It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.”

But Brown was not satisfied. As the state's overseer of elections, she developed legislation designed to take the hassle out of registering to vote by enacting a groundbreaking plan to automatically register voters using drivers' license data.

This is a big deal, as it adopts a proactive approach to voter registration; instead of requiring eligible voters to jump through hoops to get on the election rolls, the state does the work. The approach reflects the sensibility of high-registration, high-turnout countries around the world, where democracy is made easy rather than hard. The approach is reliable and cost-effective, as it utilizes existing state data. And it allows citizens who do not want to be voters to opt out.

Perfect, right?

Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Democracy made easy may make sense to those who see a value in high-turnout elections and governing that reflects the will of the great mass of people. But it makes no sense to those who prefer governing to be the exclusive preserve of monied elites and their official minions—and for whom the notion of a truly representative democracy is truly frightening.

So Brown had to work the chambers of the Oregon legislature, where she faced plenty of opposition from Republicans and even the occasional Democrat. There really are a lot of politicians who share the view of the former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed a proposal for automatic voter registration in Minnesota with the message that "registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act." Translation: Citizens should have to jump through some hoops before they can become voters.

When Brown was promoting her plan, one Oregon legislator griped that, 'It's already so easy to register, why would we make it easier?'"

"My answer," Brown recalled, "is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians, so why wouldn't we?"

The arguments eventually took and the measure was approved by the state House and the state Senate.

The thing is that Brown is no longer the secretary of state. With the resignation of former Governor John Kitzhaber in February, Brown took over as governor.

So, this week, Brown signed her bill into law.

The Oregon Statesman Journal reported that "The bill's authors estimate it could add 300,000 new voters to the state's current 2.2 million registered voters."

But Brown is still not satisfied.

When she signed Oregon's first-in-the-nation law, the governor announced that, "Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting and I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible in the way of the citizen's right to vote."

That's a good challenge. It might even make real the promise of Leonard Cohen's great song of almost a quarter century ago: "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A."

That prospect may be hard to imagine in states that are still debating restrictive "Voter ID" laws and trying to limit early voting and same-day registration.

But if democracy can come to Oregon, why not the U.S.A.?

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