Democracy For All

Oregon’s success shows a way forward for automatic voter registration.

Oregon’s Success Shows A Way Forward For Automatic Voter Registration

Today, Kentucky Democrats and Oregonians from both parties will vote in their respective primaries as primary season (still) rolls along. While most of the primary buzz has centered on the horse race, much less attention has focused on any of the voting problems many states have experienced this primary season, from drastic cuts to the number of polling locations to confusion over new voter ID laws.

But while many conservative-led states have moved to restrict voter access in recent years, Oregon has done the opposite. Last year, the Beaver state passed a first-in-the-nation automatic voter registration program. Under the program, any unregistered eligible Oregonian who applies for or renews a driver’s license is automatically registered to vote. And, according to new analysis from the Center for American Progress, it has been hugely successful.

Since the program launched in January, 51,558 Oregonians have been added to the voter rolls through automatic voter registration. All told, Oregon has added 129,162 voter registrations to the rolls this year. To put that in perspective, in the first four months of 2008—the last time there was an open presidential contest—the state added a net total of 85,326 voter registrations. Based on CAP’s analysis, with automatic voter registration, three times as many new voter registrations have been added to the rolls automatically in 2016—and that’s a conservative estimate. So far, fifteen times as many people have been registered to vote automatically as have declined registration through the program.

Oregon’s voter registration program has been successful for two main reasons, according to the analysis. First, the specific process used to register citizens is simple, easy to administer, and takes advantage of modern technology to avoid implementation hurdles. Second, by forcing people to take action to opt-out of being registered to vote rather than take action to opt-in to being registered, the system eliminates an extra barrier of effort needed to become registered to vote. Such a structure is referred to as a “no-action default,” and social science research suggests it is the most effective structure for aligning incentives with preferred outcomes. For more details on the program’s success read this.

Unfortunately, the United States faces a crisis of low political participation. In the 2012 presidential election almost 61 million Americans voted for Gov. Romney and 66 million voted for President Obama, but more than 90 million eligible Americans did not vote at all.

But it turns out that one of the main reasons people don’t turn out to vote is because they aren’t registered: In a study of 18- to 29-year-old nonvoters, 55 percent of black youth, 45 percent of Latino youth, and 61 percent of white youth said they did not vote because they were “not registered to vote”—which was by far the highest reason given for not voting. That means that automatic voter registration, like Oregon’s, has the potential to transform voter registration from a barrier to voter participation into its gateway.

BOTTOM LINE: Democracy works best when it works for everyone and Oregon’s automatic voter registration program is an important step in ensuring a high level of civic engagement. It’s time for the rest of the country to follow suit.

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