In May, 2016, 71% of Oregon voters were eligible to participate in the Republican or Democratic closed primary. If the primary election were held today, only 63.4% of Oregon registered voters could cast a vote in the Republican or Democratic primary. This is due to a flaw – possibly unconstitutional – in Oregon Motor Voter law.
While registering all eligible voters is a noble goal because of Oregon’s closed primary system the way Motor Voter is implemented, separating automatic voter registration from party membership selection, means that the percentage of voters eligible to participate in THE election that selects 90% of our State representatives and State Senators (the Democratic and Republican May primary) will continue to fall.
It’s not hard to fix this. And in fact other states that have automatic voter registration have addressed this problem by simply offering the opt out of voter registration at the time of the transaction with DMV.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, there are now 10 states that have automatic voter registration. Eight of those states provide the opt out at the time of the transaction. Only two, Oregon and Alaska, require the opt out be later. (Note: The chart used in the NCLS article is incorrect when it states Oregon has opt out at the time of the transaction). Alaska’s automatic voter registration occurs when a citizen interacts with their State’s common fund. Since that is a process whereby Alaskans receive a check if they follow through on their responses to the State, its fair to assume that Alaskans will respond to any opt out or party affiliation offer. Oregon on the other hand, offers no incentives for people to respond to an opt out or party selection notification. So it stands somewhat alone in it’s determination to make opt out as difficult as possible. So while it’s true fewer Oregonians who are automatically registered don’t opt out, the trade off is that we also end up with a huge proportion of non affiliated voters who can’t participate in Oregon’s closed primaries.
In Oregon the failure to offer an opt out at the time of the DMV transaction is the key failure of Motor Voter. Because Motor Voters will automatically be enrolled as non affiliated, then only later will they be sent a card asking them if they’d like to opt out, or join a political party. The response rate to that post card is about 13%, with only 12% selecting to join a political party. That means that 88% of Oregon Motor voters will not be eligible to vote in the May Democratic of Republican closed primary.
AN EASY FIX
There is an easy fix that eight of nine other States use. The opt out could be offered at DMV offices, the DMV agent would simply say, you are being registered to vote unless you choose not to. And would you like to select a party to join or remain unaffiliated. This would not only make more motor voters eligible to participate in the important May primary, it would also save money. No opt out post cards to mail, and process. No ballots sent to people who have verbally stated they don’t want to vote. That seems like a very fiscally conservative value.
And, importantly, we’d have a larger percentage of Oregon voters participating in our most important elections. That seems like a very Democratic value.
Right now DMV is putting out an RFP for a new DMV software vendor. It has the opportunity to include in the RFP the requirement that the software has the capability for a DMV agent to process automatic voter registration as an opt out with party selection. There would be no additional cost to including that functionality. The Independent Party has pressed the Oregon Secretary of State, DMV and Governor Kate Brown to include that in the RFP. It makes sense from a practical and business sense in case we do decide to offer opt out during the transaction in order to get more people eligible to vote in the May primaries.
So far, all have refused to require the functionality. That refusal only makes sense if Democrats running state government don’t want Motor voters to participate in their closed primary. It’s also a risky and potentially expensive choice, given the possibility that Oregon’s Motor Voter law may not comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The argument would be that Oregon’s closed primary system, Gerrymandered districts and lack of opportunity to select a party at the time of registration at DMV effectively deprives people of participating in one of the most important elections.
Of course that would only be determined should someone file a complaint with the Trump Administration Department of Justice.