by Michael Althouse, Contributor
In election law, states can get a bad rap. States are supposed to be the laboratories for democracy, but when it comes to elections, it can seem like they’re more like the inept, maybe-racist, drunk uncle of democracy. It’s not all so bad out there, though, and Oregon is a good example of how states can innovate in a successful way. In 1998, just two years before Florida would grind the nation to a halt while it counted hanging chads, the people of Oregon overwhelmingly passed State Measure 60, requiring all votes to be cast through the mail. Two of the primary motivations behind the measure were that it would save money and it would increase voter participation. It’s hard to say with certainty whether voting by mail had an effect on voter participation, but in 1996 Oregon’s voter turnout was around 57%, and in 2000, two years after State Measure 60, it was around 80%. Any number of things can result in an increased voter turnout, such as passion around a relevant issue, a particularly divisive election, or natural disasters. Regardless of potential causes, since 1998, Oregon has consistently had one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the country.
But wait! There’s more! In 2010 Oregon began allowing citizens to register to vote online. The motivations were again primarily to increase voter turnout and save money. The immediate results from this policy change are not as dramatic as requiring the mail-in ballot. In 2012, Oregon dropped from 9 to 14 in a ranking of states by voter turnout. Interestingly, Oregon had one of the highest voter turnouts when you consider it only as a percentage of registered voters. That means the drop may be related to more people failing to register to vote. The next few elections will likely show whether the online registration has had an affect on Oregon’s voter turnout, and particularly on its voter turnout as a percentage of voting-age adults compared with turnout as a percentage of registered voters.
Oregon is certainly not the end-all, be-all for how to run an election. Currently, it has a rating of 61% on the Elections Performance Index, a ratings system used to grade the overall quality of a state election system. 61% is not bad, but it is a far cry from the spotless 83% of Wisconsin, or the so-close-to-the-top 82% of North Dakota. But what the mail-in ballots and online registration of Oregon can teach us is that the states really can hold true to the promise of being a place where new and bold ideas are tried. These are ideas that may not necessarily work on a national level (a state with a highly transient population like New York may not benefit from having ballots sent to an address), but they are ideas tailored to Oregon and appear to do some good for voter turnout. As time goes on, other states will hopefully learn and benefit from Oregon’s experiments in the laboratory.