I. In Focus This Week
Automatic voter registration debuts in Oregon
Once again Oregon leads the way in election reform
Once again Oregon has found itself on the leading edge of election reform.
On January 4 2016, the state became the first in the country to begin automatically registering voters who visit the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to apply for a new or renew a driver’s license or state ID.
Since Oregon Motor Voter launched one month ago, the state has added 4,348 voters to the rolls.
Under the law, once the voters are registered they receive a Motor Voter card from the Oregon Elections Division and they have three options: Do nothing and remain registered, opt-out, or choose a political party.
Voters have 21 days to respond to the card. If they don’t respond to the card, they may still opt-out at any time by going online or to their local elections office. Once a voter opts out, it is noted on their DMV file and they will not be automatically registered again upon a future visit to the DMV.
According to the elections division, which is reporting its findings today, since the law launched on January 4, 4,653 new voters were automatically enrolled as voters. Of those only 305 returned their cards and chose to opt-out of registering by the 21-day deadline. An additional 437 people returned their cards choosing a party affiliation.
Former secretary of state and now Governor Kate Brown (D) championed the legislation and one of her first acts as governor was to sign the bill into law.
While the legislation was the Brown’s baby, it fell upon current Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins and her staff to implement the new law.
Preparing the state to automatically register voters required a project manager and the coordination of three offices — the DMV, the Elections Division and the Department of Administrative Services, which did the printing and mailing of the Motor Voter cards.
Although the state was already receiving information from the DMV they did have to add specific fields to the DMV forms like proof of legal presence in the state.
“It wasn’t a start-from-scratch process,” Atkins said. “We made a decision that they would develop a report each night of relevant transactions that met our criteria and then we would go and get that and match it against our centralized voter database and then we take the bull by the horns so-to-speak and send them a mailer.”
Atkins said the response to AVR, so far anyway, has been surprisingly restrained. The office had prepared to hire temp staffing to handle the volume of calls they anticipated, but those calls never came.
“We expected a bunch of calls, good news is we really haven’t gotten that,” Atkins said. “Certainly no outraged calls of yet. More than anything calls came from people who thought they were already registered.”
Atkins said the feedback from county elections officials has been good too.
Another surprise for Atkins and county clerks was the impact the new process would have on updating voter rolls. In the month since AVR launched, nearly 17,000 existing registrations have been updated with new addresses.
“This wasn’t unexpected, but we hadn’t focused on what it would actually mean,” Atkins said. “It’s a really exciting piece from a lot of stand points.”
Atkins said she and the clerks will be monitoring the things during the May election, but they anticipate a lot fewer ballots will be returned undeliverable.
“There is a lot better chance now that everyone who is registered will actually get a ballot at the right address,” Atkins said.
Currently the state is only registering those who have a new touch with the DMV since January 4, but during the “down time” of the summer months, the secretary’s office will be going back and registering all eligible voters who had contact with the DMV since January 1, 2014.
“We made the decision early in the process that we should be getting the moving forward program up and running and be able to have a smooth start,” Atkins said. “We’re treating it as a separate process and think that some of the communications will have to be different.”
Speaking of communications, Atkins said that because the office wasn’t granted a bunch of money to do PSAs or advertising they have had to rely heavily on Oregon media and with many advocacy organizations and student groups to get the word out to voters. Everyone who comes to the DMV does get a brochure that explains all the ways that people can register.
And now for the question that everyone wants to know, just how much did this whole thing cost?
“We hope to be able to share with the world what everything cost once we know,” Atkins said. “But there are some numbers still missing.”
The office was given authorization to use $750,000 in HAVA funds to hire a project manager and for hardware and software related costs. And of course the costs of the mailings. The legislature also set aside funds to reimburse counties on a per-registration basis.
“We don’t foresee that we’re going to ask for more money till the next budget cycle,” Atkins said.
Atkins said as AVR rolls into its second month they aren’t preparing to make any changes or adjustments to the system based on how the first month rolled out. She said her office is carefully reviewing every element of the process, but so far nothing has jumped out that needs changing or adjusting.
Automatic voter registration in other states
California has also approved automatic voter registration system, although it differs slightly from Oregon’s in that potential voters have the opportunity to opt out at the time of their transaction with the DMV. Although the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2016, it remains unclear when it will actually come into practice because according to the Los Angeles Times, the DMV is waiting on the development of regulations and not all counties are yet part of VoteCal.
In 2015 the New Jersey General Assembly approved automatic voter registration, but Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed it. Democratic members of the General Assembly have said overriding Christie’s veto would be a top priority.
Automatic voter registration has been introduced in at least 18 states and the District of Columbia since Oregon introduced its legislation and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) have also introduced federal legislation for automatic voter registration in their respective chambers.
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