Seventeen years after Oregon decided to become the first state to hold all elections with mail-in ballots, it took another pioneering step yesterday to broaden participation by automatically registering people to vote. Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill that puts the burden of registration on the state instead of voters: Under the legislation, every adult citizen in Oregon who has interacted with the DMV since 2013 but hasn't registered to vote will receive a ballot in the mail at least 20 days before the next statewide election. People eligible to vote will get a postcard saying they've been registered and have three weeks to opt out. They'll be automatically registered as unaffiliated but can select a political party from the postcard and return it to election officials through the mail.
Other states have considered such legislation but none has gone as far as Oregon. "It just changes expectations for who's responsible for making elections work," says the director of the Elections Research Center. "In every other state it's the responsibility for the voters to make sure it happens." Concerns had been raised by Oregon's minority Republicans, who also voiced worry about potential voter fraud, the cost of implementing the measure, and whether the DMV can ensure personal data remains secure. "Simply because it makes us unique or makes us first does not necessarily mean that it actually improves on what we're doing," warned one state senator. Oregon already has one of the nation's highest voter registration rates—73% of Oregonians were registered to vote and 70% of them cast ballots during the 2014 general election. The measure is expected to add about 300,000 new voters to the rolls. (Read more Oregon stories.)