by Megan Thomas, Contributor

As much as we focus on getting out the vote for each election, the first step in voting usually takes place long before election day. Throughout the United States, citizens must register before they are allowed to vote.  Though some states allow same-day registration, most states require that voters register in advance of an election. Advance registration makes voting a multi-step process and is widely considered to be a barrier to voter access.

Earlier this year, the Oregon came close to being the first state in the nation to eliminate this obstacle.  Oregon’s House Bill 3521 proposed to authorize the state to automatically register voters based upon drivers’ license data from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown estimated that this measure could add 500,000 new voters to the state’s voter registration rolls. Currently, voter registration ends 21 days before an election in Oregon. This means that non-registered, but eligible, voters who become interested in the election in the period between the registration deadline and election day are not allowed to vote. The dramatic increase in media coverage and campaign outreach during the weeks immediately preceding the election contributes to increasing awareness of the election and its importance to people, and it is easy to see how people may only come to realize the importance of their vote after the registration deadline.

Despite having successfully passed in the state House, the proposed legislation was killed by a one vote margin in state Senate. The Senate vote was largely along party lines, with all fourteen Republican Senators and one Democratic Senator voting against the bill. Much of the opposition to the bill focused on two issues: concerns about increased voter fraud and a belief that “anyone who cared enough to vote should take personal responsibility for registering.” Republican leaders also worried that making registration easier would mean that the voters would take less time to become informed about the relevant issues in a given election.

Automatic voter registration has been increasingly garnering national attention. Though none have been enacted, automatic voter registration bills have been considered by thirteen state legislatures since 2011. With this increased attention, it seems likely that a state will enact such legislation in the near future.  Such enactment is more likely to occur in states where Democrats are in power, since Democrats tend to support automatic and same-day voter registration. Most of the unregistered eligible voters are either minorities, the poor, or the young, groups that tend to support Democrats. This has led to partisan divisions in support for automatic voter registration measures.

Automatic voter registration increases access to voting. While it would not result in universal registration of eligible voters, automatic registration would dramatically increase the number of registered voters.  This increase in registered voters would likely correspond with greater voter turnout in all elections, from dog-catcher to President. Greater participation in the electoral process will result in a more representative and responsive government.


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