They came to vote.

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Oregon Gives Democracy a Try

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Very good news for voting: Oregon makes voter registration automatic. As my View colleague Francis Barry puts it: After Selma and the Voting Rights Act, “The question that people should be asking all these years later is: Why should anyone have to register at all?”

The new law, signed yesterday by Oregon Governor Kate Brown, mandates that the state automatically register all qualified citizens based on drivers license records. Citizens will have the ability to opt out, but the burden will be on the state to keep records up to date.

Oregon represents a small, first step toward joining the world's most successful democracies. Voter registration in most of the advanced world is automatic. In the U.S., it's not only cumbersome, it varies by state. In most states, the registration deadline arrives well before the heat of the campaign, meaning that new voters (or those who have moved and need to re-register) must attend to the responsibility long before most people are paying attention to the election. As a result, registration is perhaps the largest obstacle to voting in the U.S. -- and a major reason that Americans are less inclined to vote than citizens in most similar democracies.

Voter registration was instituted in the U.S. in part because population growth in the 19th century had expanded opportunities for fraud. Since no one could recognize every legitimate voter, it was possible to cast votes in multiple precincts. It was also a way for native citizens to keep the franchise (and, thus, political influence) beyond the grasp of new immigrants. Just as Democrats in the South blocked blacks from voting, Republicans (mostly) in the North and Midwest devised ways to keep various ethnic groups from the polls.

Skepticism, among both conservatives and liberals, about universal identification cards has made it harder to implement universal, automatic registration in the U.S. But plenty of people, for partisan reasons or simply because they don’t believe in genuine democracy, embrace the argument that a few extra hurdles to voting is, all in all, a plus.

And, no, that assessment is not too harsh. While it’s true that any democracy gives extra influence to those who care the most, no polity that deliberately discourages large numbers of citizens from participation is a true democracy.

Most recent changes in voting rules have been Republican-backed efforts to make voting harder. Oregon hints at one possible outcome of that: A robust democracy with relatively high turnout in Democratic states, as they experiment with measures to lower obstacles to voting, and a restricted franchise and severely flawed democracy in Republican states. At least, that seems likely unless Congress or the courts intervene on the side of democracy.

  1. Please, don't even get started with semantic distinctions between "democracy" and "republics." For all practical purposes, they're the same thing

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net