Give Richardson credit for expanding access

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's proposed change to voter eligibility rules seems to contradict moves elsewhere in the country, where Republican officials have tended to try to restrict access to the polls rather than expand it.

Richardson, the first Republican elected to the state's second-highest office in three decades, is proposing to extend the time voters can fail to cast ballots before they are dropped from the rolls.

Democrats, who generally support any action that removes barriers to voting, are decidedly cool toward Richardson's latest move. They should give him more credit.

Oregon pioneered vote-by-mail and recently added a "Motor Voter" law that automatically registers every eligible resident who interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they opt out. But state law also purges from the rolls any voter who does not cast a ballot for five years.

Richardson proposes to extend that period to 10 years. That would preserve the voting eligibility of 30,000 Oregonians who registered in 2012 during President Barack Obama's re-election campaign but have not voted since.

Richardson also proposes to reactivate the registrations of an additional 30,000 residents by retroactively applying the new rule. He says this will help Oregonians serving in the military, college students and voters who have become disillusioned by the political system.

Richardson also plans to make this adjustment without asking the Legislature to change the law. He argues he can do that because the statute says only that voters may be purged after a minimum of five years of inactivity, but sets no maximum. So he says his office can extend the cutoff to 10 years with an administrative rule change.

None of this means all those reactivated voters will start casting ballots again. But they will start receiving ballots in the mail, and many may just be prompted to send them in.

Whether voter participation goes up is really beside the point. The important thing is, another barrier will have been removed.

Some Democrats are welcoming this move, including Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, who attended Richardson's press conference Tuesday.

But state Democratic Party Executive Director Brad Martin told a Eugene Register-Guard reporter that the change is “a good first step for the secretary,” and the party would reserve judgment, noting that Richardson had voted against increasing voter access as a legislator.

Democrats should give credit where it's due, and embrace this sign that Richardson is taking seriously his role as the state's chief election official.

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