Voting rolls: Give automatic DMV method a pass, for now

Driverless cars may be a thing of the future, but do we need more clueless voters?

Here’s why we ask:

As the Oregon Legislature settles into the new session, among the slurry of proposed legislation filling legislators’ trays are plenty of issue- or program-specific ideas.

One piece of proposed legislation now before the Oregon State Legislature is HB 2177, put forth by Secretary of State Kate Brown. It would automatically register to vote all eligible citizens who apply for a driver’s license. A similar proposal failed in 2013, and this one needs a long and critical look.

Meanwhile, another electoral question, that of Independent Party status, complicates the matter.

First, HB 2177: in a nutshell, it “directs the Department of Transportation to provide Secretary of State with electronic records containing legal name, age, residence and citizenship information and electronic signature of each person who may qualify as elector as prescribed by secretary by rule.”

Brown estimates that up to 300,000 more people would be added to the 2 million voter rolls — a significant increase and, on the surface, a welcome thing.

Opponents exaggerate in saying that it replaces all means of registering a vote. You would still be able to go to your County Clerk’s office and fill out the form; after all, not all drivers are voters, and not all voters are drivers. Some people might prefer the participatory method, and the law would not change any existing state or federal law regarding signing up to vote. HB2177 would rely on state records to ensure that only those with a “C” for citizen next to their names actually become registered, but those who apply for a license would receive a postcard asking them to opt out of it. State officials are confident drivers would comply with the law.

(No offense to aficionados of conventional mail, but in 2015, is a postcard the best way to get people to respond? Secretary of State Spokesman Tony Green says it is, and notes that if there is no reply to the opt-out card, it also means the ballot itself will never reach them, for ballots are never forwarded.)

Another option might be for the Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles to combine efforts to encourage people to vote; provide the forms at DMV, for example, without relying on a new law. Brown’s office could advocate for getting more people involved, without relying on state records to do it.

But all this raises a certain counter-intuitiveness about participation in the voting process. Fewer and fewer votes are being cast by citizens who ARE eligible, yet this bill suggests an information-based system of enrolling more people to vote — whether they are interested or not.

Voter confidence is at its lowest point ever, meaning people have to want to vote, and making it an automatic process could have the opposite effect of undermining confidence.

Then there is the matter of Independent voters. According to the Oregonian newspaper, the Independent Party of Oregon says it now has enough registered voters — nearly 105,000 — to become the state’s third major party along with the Democratic and Republican parties.

Green said elections officials are studying the law to see if the Independent party indeed achieved legal status of a major party and how the Secretary of State will proceed, according to the Oregonian.

Given the likely increase in Independent voters via the automatic method proposed under 2177, Brown should get that sorted out first, and give the legislative route another two years.

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