By Jonathan J. Cooper Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. — Oregon’s chief elections official wants almost everyone with a driver’s license to be automatically registered to vote.
The plan, proposed by Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown, would significantly redesign Oregon’s voter-registration practices and potentially add hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters to the state.
Combined with Oregon’s all-mail elections, the bill would mean that most adult state residents would automatically get a ballot in their mailbox. Republicans have reacted with caution, saying they’re concerned about the potential for fraud.
The House Rules Committee heard public testimony on Brown’s proposal Wednesday but did not decide whether to advance it.
“Voting is a right and a power afforded every eligible citizen in this state,” Brown told the committee. “The purpose of registration is to identify eligible people, not to exclude them.”
Nearly 40,000 people tried to register to vote but missed the deadline over the last three elections, Brown said.
The debate comes amid a fierce disagreement between activists in both parties over the mechanics of voting — how a ballot is cast, and how much proof of identity should be required.
Democrats worry that strict registration and identification requirements disenfranchise voters, particularly young, old and low-income voters who may have more trouble providing proof of their identity and address. Republicans fear that lax restrictions would make it easier for someone to illegally cast a ballot.
“Voter registration should be the responsibility of citizens, not the responsibility of state agencies,” said Sandy Raddue of Beaverton, who leads the Oregon Republican Party’s election integrity efforts.
Brown survived a tough re-election challenge last year and is widely viewed as a potential candidate for higher office.
The measure would require the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division to send names, ages, addresses, citizenship details and digital signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office, the state agency in charge of elections. People who meet the legal requirements to vote would be registered if they aren’t already, and they’d receive a letter with instructions to cancel their registration or join a political party if they wished to do so.
The move would significantly swell the voter ranks — Brown’s office estimates an influx of about 500,000 new registered voters. With a population of 3.9 million, Oregon had about 3 million adult licensed drivers at the end of 2011, the most recent year available. There are currently 2.2 million registered voters. Some of the licensed drivers who aren’t registered to vote would be ineligible to cast a ballot because they’re not U.S. citizens or were convicted of a felony.
Oregon’s voter turnout is among the highest in the nation. Last year, 83 percent of eligible voters returned their ballot.
Eight states and the District of Columbia allow voters to register on election day, and North Dakota doesn’t require voter registration.