In America in 2016, voting rights are under attack. The Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. And under the guise of rooting out voter fraud, right-wing politicians in 17 states have passed onerous new restrictions for this year. Focused on voter ID requirements, curtailed early voting, and a reduction in polling locations, these provisions work to Republicans’ advantage by blocking ballot access for many young people, students, poor folks who move around a lot and older voters who either don’t drive or lack access to documents like birth certificates. In Maricopa County, Arizona — think Phoenix — politicians reduced the number of polling locations by 70 percent from 2012 levels for the 2016 election. In the state’s March primary, voters were forced to wait as long as five hours to cast a ballot.
My home state of Oregon is taking a wildly different approach — expanding ballot access in what was already a uniquely voter-friendly place.
Oregon pioneered universal vote-by-mail back in 1998, a practice adopted in recent years by Washington state and Colorado. The process is simple: Everyone in the state is an absentee voter. There are no precinct locations, no lines, no voting machines, no checking of photo IDs. There’s no hidden tax from having to take time off work to vote.
The department of elections just mails out ballots to all registered voters a couple weeks prior to election day. In the privacy of their own homes or apartments, voters can research candidates and ballot initiatives, make thoughtful decisions, mark their ballots and seal them in a signed envelope. From there, voters either mail the ballots back, or, if they’re late deciders, drop them off in a centralized dropbox. The one near my house is in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, in a separate lane next to the drive-thru window.
The process is not only simple and secure (all ballots are signed and signatures checked against state records), it also saves money — about $3 million per election cycle. And this simple reform juices turnout. As this Washington Monthly piece details, “In 2014, Oregon’s active voter turnout rate was 70.9 percent—23 percentage points higher than the national average—despite having no hotly contested top races.”
Oregon’s senior senator, Ron Wyden, has introduced legislation to take the Oregon model national. “Across the country, there are stories of long lines, inexplicable purges of voter rolls and new requirements that make it harder for citizens to vote. There is no excuse for accepting this state of affairs,” Wyden said, introducing his bill in April.
In recent months, Oregon has again taken the lead in voting reform, spearheading a new trend in expanding voter access. Beginning this January, Oregon now automatically registers citizens at the DMV. If you obtain or renew a driver’s license, bam, you’re a registered voter. (Voters can opt out, but that requires filling out a form.) Since the law went into effect, more than 50,000 new voters have been added to the rolls. The state is adding voters at triple the former rate.
Oregon’s example has already inspired California, Vermont and West Virginia to pass similar measures. And both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have endorsed forms of national automatic voter registration.
This isn’t rocket science. We’re talking improving constitutional rights with mailboxes and simple databases. Vote-by-mail and automatic registration expand the franchise and produce high-turnout elections that are cheap, simple, secure and hassle-free.
This is what democracy should look like.