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Bulking up the Ballot Box 

A new rule is aimed at further maximizing voter access in Oregon

Cars form a caravan out front of a downtown Bend ballot box during the November 2016 election.
  • Cars form a caravan out front of a downtown Bend ballot box during the November 2016 election.

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has set in motion yet another effort to "maximize" voter access in a state that already excels in expanding and ensuring voter access for residents.

The new rule will extend the period of time before a voter is moved to inactive status, from five years to 10 years. Under law, a voter is moved to inactive status if they have neither voted nor updated their registration information during the prescribed period of time. Statewide, it's estimated this will ultimately impact around 60,000 voters.

Descshutes county clerk Nancy Blankenship estimates there are 2,500 such voters currently in Deschutes County. Blankenship says it will be incumbent on county clerks to send notices to these voters of their change in status and obtain updated information as necessary.

Oregon has a history of leading when it comes to voter access, going back at least to 1912 when Oregon became one of the first states to grant women the right to vote. Though impediments and challenges remained—particularly with respect to racial and ethnic barriers—these efforts were emblematic of the Oregon commitment to expanded voter access. Voter access efforts have included allowing voters to register by mail beginning in 1975, the move to vote by mail in all elections in 1998 (Oregon was the first state to do so); online voter registration in 2009, and the most recent innovation, passage of Oregon's Motor Voter Law in 2015, in which Oregon became the first state to move to an "opt-out" model of registration.

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Oregon experimented with vote by mail in local elections and some state elections before full implementation through the citizen's initiative, Ballot Measure 60, in 1998. Sen. Ron Wyden was the first federal candidate to be elected by a mail-in ballot, when he ran in a special election to replace Sen. Bob Packwood in 1996.

County Clerk Blankenship says she believes vote by mail has consistently increased voter participation. She noted that the recent special election on May 16 had only a 29.4 percent voter turnout, quite low in comparison to other off-year elections in recent years. However, she indicated that prior to vote by mail, such an election would likely have had a participation rate of only 8-10 percent.

Oregon's dive into the motor voter world did not come without opposition. Those supporting the legislation pointed toward the goal of breaking down barriers to allow all eligible voters the ability to register to vote. Ultimately, the law will serve to register all eligible voters not already registered to vote who apply for or renew a driver's permit, Oregon driver's license or Oregon ID card. Eligibility is defined as being over the age of 17, an Oregon resident and a U.S. citizen.

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Opposition to the Motor Voter Law focused primarily on two concerns: the potential for voter fraud and privacy issues. The issue of voter fraud circles around non-citizens gaining access to vote. Oregon law currently requires proof of either citizenship or legal status in the United States to qualify for a driver's license, permit or ID card. The Department of Motor Vehicles differentiates these two status options, and under the law, only data regarding citizens is forwarded to the Elections Division.

A current bill under consideration by the Legislature, SB 374 A, adopting the requirements of the Federal Real ID act for such identification documents in Oregon, would conceivably tighten the proof of citizenship requirement. As to the issue of privacy concerns, this focuses on the potential breach of confidential and or personal data. The law itself speaks to maintaining privacy of certain information, such as information regarding police officers and domestic violence victims, and both the DMV and Elections Division have worked to institute and tighten preventative measures involved in the exchange of information.

Thus far the OMV appears to have been successful, reportedly registering over 250,000 voters in that first year. In Deschutes County, according to Clerk Blankenship, from Jan. 1, 2016 through May 31, 2017, there have been 17,079 voters registered through OMV. This equates to 64 percent of newly registered voters during that period of time. She explained that once they receive the information from the state, they then spend hours verifying voter registration information to insure the accuracy of that information, as they do with the regular registration process.

There will likely be proposals in the future to "upgrade" the voting process in Oregon, such as online voting. There is one thing for certain, however, as pointed out by Blankenship, "Oregon has worked to make it as simple as possible to register, receive and return your ballot, and overall, that is a good thing."


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