The Pioneer in the Pacific Northwest: How Oregon Makes it Easy to Vote

By Michael Pierce*

Both the 15th Amendment and 1965 Voting Rights Act are crucial tools for protecting citizens’ right to vote, but it’s important to remember that they set a floor: progressive states shouldn’t celebrate their not making it more difficult to vote. Instead, they should be asking themselves how they can make it easier. The answer to that question lies in the Pacific Northwest.

By the time the 2016 elections are underway, the Oregon government will have mailed voters their ballots—this after automatically registering many of them to vote, using their DMV information. These two features of Oregon’s system, mail-in voting and automatic registration, will result in Oregon’s voter turnout far outstripping that of the nation. Oregon’s system is cheap, popular, and effective. As such, it provides a model for reformers in other states.

Allowing Voters to Mail It In

As of 1998, Oregon voters have been exclusively using mail-in ballots. This practice has three major logistical advantages over traditional polling-place voting. It’s flexible, conducive to deliberation, and dirt cheap. No surprise, then, that voters there love it, and use it.

With vote-by-mail, busy people, especially those with demanding or unpredictable schedules—think service workers operating under a ruthless scheduling algorithm—can choose a time that works for them; no need to ask permission from their bosses, or to wait in line for hours. Instead, they have about two weeks to consider the issues, fill out their ballots, and mail them in or drop them off. This time allows for thinking: they can consult resources with their ballot in front of them, looking online to determine if the local paper put out an editorial on a particular ballot measure, or if a state senator up for re-election voted against a bill they supported.

All this, and it saves taxpayers money, too: operating polling places cost Oregon three times as much as operating the mail-in system. Not to mention that people who try it, love it: in a survey taken five years into the new system, 80% of Oregonians approved of vote-by-mail.

Unsurprisingly, then, Oregonians vote more than nearly all of their peers. Per calculations using Michael P. McDonald’s data at the United States Elections Project, Oregon ranked 5th among the states in its 2014 general election turnout, with 54% of eligible voters doing what they’re eligible to do, compared with 37% for the United States as a whole. That difference is huge: if every state achieved Oregon’s voting numbers, about 40 million more people would have voted in 2014. (Colorado and Washington are the only other states to utilize mail-in voting in the same way, and they placed 3rd and 18th, respectively, in 2014 turnout.)

Nudging Potential Voters

Oregon didn’t stop there. Starting this year, Oregon will automatically register its (unregistered) eligible citizens to vote, unless they opt-out within 21 days of receiving a notice. It will do so by using DMV data to populate (and update) its voter rolls.

At first blush, it’s not clear how this new law will accomplish anything: if someone doesn’t want to vote, Oregon’s new law will neither punish nor bribe them (contra Australia’s system). But empirical research from the burgeoning field of behavioral economics (i.e., economics, incorporating insights from psychology) suggests that this change will in fact result in significantly more people voting. From organ donation to retirement savings, studies have shown that changing the default rule from non-participation to participation, even when opting-out of that participation is as simple as checking a box, results in significant change in people’s behavior; the default rule is apparently very appealing.

About 300,000 new voters are likely to be registered by this process. Oregon’s total eligible voter population is under 3 million, so this is a big deal. Unless they choose a party, the new voters will be unaffiliated.

But do we really want these people voting?

Yes, we do. What they lack in gumption, they make up for in moderation. Those who don’t consistently vote are less likely to be hyper-partisan (read: less likely to hold “strongly negative” views of their political opposites). They’re pragmatic people not defined by their—sometimes lack of—political ideology. Making it easier for them to vote could very well result in a less polarized, more willing-to-compromise Congress.

(For concerns with registration fraud, note that using the DMV as a data source is better than traditional voting registration because registering at the former requires actual proof of legal residency. For voting fraud worries, see Oregon’s sealed-enveloped-with-signature-on-back requirement for mail-in ballots.)

Progressive states should not rest on their lack of restrictive voting requirements. They should follow Oregon’s example—or, ideally, improve upon it by deputizing multiple state agencies (in addition to the DMV) to cover more of the eligible population—and help make ours a more truly representative democracy.

* Michael Pierce (HLS Class of 2014) currently serves as a law clerk. He wrote a student note for HLPR’s Volume 8 and has previously written on HLPR’s blog about eliminating midterm elections.

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