OLYMPIA – The state of Oregon has some good-government types agog and aglow over its new law on voter registration.
Perhaps that’s because the good-govs have had little to celebrate on the voter registration front recently, what with conservatives passing tougher identification laws and the Voting Rights Act being fed to a Bass-O-Matic by the Supreme Court. So they jumped on Oregon’s law that automatically signs a person up to vote unless he or she actively opts out, as a great step forward.
In fact, it’s a terrible idea if what you’re trying to do is get more people to vote. What it likely will do is get a greater number of registered voters to not vote.
It was not difficult in Oregon to register to vote. The franchise was not exclusive to special members of a certain race, creed, gender or ethnic origin, unless one counts being an actual resident of the state and an American citizen as an onerous qualification. One did not have to pass a test, pay a tax, swear an oath of fealty, walk 50 miles through the wilderness or even show up in person at the county elections office to register. One could do it online, simply providing a number from an Oregon driver’s license or state ID card.
In that respect, registration was much like it is in Washington. Pretty darn easy.
With the new law, it got easier. Now, when one shows up to get or renew an Oregon driver’s license, that person automatically will be registered to vote unless he or she opts out by sending back a postcard that will arrive in the mail in a few weeks. Not sure if the box to check will say “No thanks” or “I am a politically illiterate deadbeat with no social conscience and not a care in the world for what insanity the people elected to various local, state and federal offices decide to inflict on me.”
Oregon officials estimate that will add as many as 800,000 citizens, who are currently eligible to vote but not registered, to their rolls that now have about 2.2 million. That would be just super if there was a prize for having the highest percentage of people who can register be registered. But until someone decides to create such an honor, it won’t count for much.
What counts in elections is not how many people are registered, but how many vote. Making it easier to register brings in a larger share of people marginally motivated – to register and to vote. There’s a very good chance that many of those who are signed up automatically will care so little about voting that they’ll throw out their ballot – Oregon mails ballots to all voters, just like Washington – or leave it sitting in a stack of junk mail until reading or hearing “It’s Election Day!”
Here’s where a big difference between voting in Oregon and Washington comes in: Oregon voters can’t mail their ballots back postmarked on Election Day like we can. Their ballots have to be at the elections office by that night. Their choice on the big day is to look up the location of the nearest drop box and drive there by closing time, or throw it out. For the person who wasn’t all that concerned about registering to vote in the first place, which option is more likely?
Oregon’s turnout – traditionally the number of people voting divided by the number who registered – is much more likely to go down than up in the coming years. The number of ballots cast might not change much, except once every four years when more people get the urge to vote for president. But even then, the results aren’t likely to be significantly different unless there’s a super-close race like Bush-Gore in Florida in 2000 or Gregoire-Rossi in Washington in 2004.
This would all be Oregon’s problem if the two states didn’t regularly watch and sometimes emulate each other on “progressive” ideas. Washington went all-mail voting after Oregon did it. Oregon went to recreational marijuana after Washington. Both of those made sense. But we shouldn’t let anyone try to push this idea across the river like a case of overrated pinot noir.
While I’m dissing Oregon …
Our neighbor to the south may have the world’s most annoying current tourism commercial, featuring the statement “There are Seven Wonders of the World and not a one of them is here in Oregon. All that we can figure is whoever came up with the list never set foot here.”
Duh. The person or persons who came up with the original list lived in Ancient Greece more than 2,100 years ago, so no, they did not ever set foot in Oregon.
Every so often there’s a contest to compile a new set of “Seven Wonders.” But like the original list, they tend to be things that have been built. However nice those scenic spots in Oregon are, they’d get left off those lists, too.
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