Oregon's experiment with automatic registration

While some states have taken steps to make it more difficult to vote, Oregon has instituted the nation's first automatic voter registration system. Today's primary election is the first test of that new system.

Oregon voters already enjoy the only all-vote-by-mail system in the country, and registering is hardly an onerous process. But in an attempt to make it even easier, lawmakers enacted the "Motor Voter" system that links the state Elections Division with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Everyone who obtains or renews a driver's license, state ID card or driver's permit who is eligible to vote but not already registered is automatically added to the rolls.

Motor Voters receive a card in the mail that allows them to opt out if they prefer to remain unregistered. They also are given the opportunity to choose a party affiliation. If they don't, they are registered as non-affiliated voters.

The new law took effect Jan. 1, so today's election is the first in which these automatically registered voters can participate — or not.

That's the real question hanging over this election: Will people who didn't bother to register or  vote in the state where it's probably the easiest to do so actually mark their ballot and return it just because they got one in the mail? Or will they ignore this election just like they ignored all the ones before?

All told, Oregon has about 100,000 new voters for this election. More than half of them — 51,558 — were added through the Motor Voter system. Most of those remained unaffiliated.

On Monday, turnout in Jackson County stood at 34 percent overall, and County Clerk Chris Walker predicted it would hit 50 percent by the voting deadline of 8 tonight. But turnout among non-affiliated voters was just 13.3 percent, suggesting the Motor Voter surge may not translate into a bigger turnout, at least in the primary.

Statewide, Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said turnout could hit 1 million — a number not seen since the 2008 primary when Barack Obama was first running for president. 

Turnout could be higher than usual today for another reason: A number of non-affiliated voters changed their registration so they could cast votes in the presidential primaries — a privilege reserved for those registered as Republicans or Democrats. The GOP contest has been virtually decided, with Donald Trump the only remaining candidate. But with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders continuing to campaign for the Democratic nomination, supporters of both may be more motivated to return their ballots.

Oregon has had higher-than-average voter participation rates since enacting vote-by-mail, although turnout in a few states is even higher. It remains to be seen whether the Motor Voter law drives more ballots to the polls.








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