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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon's Primary Is First Test For Automatic Voter Registration Law

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network
Oregon voters must return their primary ballots by May 17.

Voters in Oregon are going to the polls Tuesday to vote in their presidential primary along with a host of state and local races. But Oregonians aren't actually going to the polls because all of the state’s 2.3 million voters get their ballots through the mail.

In a special election in 1996, Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden became the first person ever elected to Congress exclusively through a vote-by-mail election. He remains a big fan of the system, which the state adopted for all elections in 2000.

Wyden held a press conference this month at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem to announce a bill that would expand the system nationwide.

"We're interested in taking the Oregon way, vote-by-mail, into precincts all across America,” he said.

Wyden's proposal would require all federal elections to be held through the mail. States could still do as they please for state and local races. He's tried expanding vote-by-mail before to no avail. But he said maybe this year will be different. Wyden points to reports of people standing in line for hours to cast ballots in presidential primaries.

"Voting should not be a test of somebody's physical endurance,” Wyden said. “It should not be a Kafka-esque experience in defeating bureaucracy."

Oregon is now one of three states that vote entirely by mail. The others are Washington and Colorado.

In another step to expand access to elections, Oregon this year became the first state to automatically register voters when they get their drivers license. Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said since the law took effect in January, the state has registered 51,050 voters this way.

The automatic registration also happens when people renew their license or change their address. The system checks for factors such as citizenship status and age, and whether you're already registered. If you're eligible the state sends you a letter telling you you're now registered to vote in Oregon. You can opt out, of course. So far just six percent of voters have done that.

The newly registered voters are not assigned a party affiliation. They can choose one later if they want. So far, that's less than a quarter of them.

Oregon's motor voter law has its opponents. During a length floor debate Republican state Rep. Julie Parrish called it an invasion of privacy.

"Democracy is also about choosing not to participate,” she said. “And when we forget that, and when we opt people in, I really try to avoid yes votes on anything that takes away choice from a citizen. And this bill does that."

One unanswered question is how many of these newly registered voters will go on to cast a ballot? Atkins said her office will crunch the numbers after the primary, but at this point, she has no idea.

"This is a place where we're pioneering,” she said. “We don't have a lot of history to go on, either here in Oregon or elsewhere since we're the first state to start to do this. So everybody's watching and everybody's very interested."

The first real test may come in November. That's because Oregon's party primaries are closed, meaning most of the newly people registered will be able to vote in only a handful of non-partisan races.

Oregon's automatic voter registration law passed on a near party-line vote. Since then, three other states have followed Oregon's lead: California, West Virginia and Vermont. But Oregon's law is the only one that's gone into effect during this election cycle.