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Oregon keeps making voting easier, not harder, unlike many other states

Newspapers spend a lot of ink and paper and time writing about legislation, laws and projects that impact the lives of readers.

Every now and then — like St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes — it's good to reflect on some of the proposals that won't see the light of day.

Sen. Richard Devlin has one of those hopeless causes in the 2017 Oregon Legislature. Senate Bill 683 would allow Oregonians to return their vote-by-mail ballots without a stamp (See story, page A3).

That seems like a small-potatoes kind of bill. Who cares?

But here's the context: States throughout the nation have been raising barriers for voting. Voter ID laws, reducing the hours that polling places are open and reducing the number of polling places all act to drive down voter participation.

Oregon has gone the opposite direction. It was the first state to make all elections vote-by-mail. We have online voter registration. We piloted, then introduced statewide, a motor/voter law that means everyone gets registered to vote when they get a driver's license unless they opt out.

The result? A 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Oregon had the sixth-highest percentage of turnout for elections. In one recent midterm election, the article said, nearly 60 percent of Oregon's eligible voters went to the polls; that's more than the turnout in eight other states at the next presidential election (typically, voter participation drops during midterms — year two of a presidential term — and peak when presidents are on the ballot).

Devlin's bill would make it easier for folks to vote in Oregon, yet again. Optimistically, he thinks it could mean 100,000 new ballots in the 2018-19 biennium.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, leader of the Senate Republican caucus, has added an amendment to SB 683 specifically allowing out-of-state military personnel and disabled Oregonians for post ballots without stamps. Again, with the goal of making it just a little bit easier for people to speak up and be heard.

This is a good bill. Which has no hope whatsoever of getting passed this session.

That's because the Legislature is staring down the barrel of a $1.6 billion shortfall in 2017-19. That's a huge shortfall. And any bill in Salem with a "fiscal impact" — that is, a price tag — is probably dead on arrival.

Senate Bill 683 could cost the state up to $400,000 this biennium, and up to $1.3 million by 2018-19, Devlin predicted. That's peanuts in a $20 billion state budget. But right now, budget-writers are sweeping peanuts up off the floor under the big top, trying to scrounge up enough change to put the budget in the black. And who's the Senate's No. 1 budget writer? Richard Devlin.

Senate Bill 683 is a noble idea. We hope it comes back around when the budget picture is better. But right now: paging St. Jude.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici signed onto another hopeless cause this week. She and Congressman Earl Blumenauer have sponsored a bill in Congress to expand the definition of "sensitive locations," in which immigration agents would not be allowed to pursue suspected undocumented immigrants. The safe zones, established under President Obama, include schools, churches and hospitals. Bonamici, of Beaverton, and her fellow Democrat want to expand the definition to courthouses and some government offices.

We've been reading stories the past couple of months of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents picking up suspected undocumented immigrants in courthouses. But the negative impact of that action is considerable, and the two Oregon representatives are right to push back.

If a person is in this country legally or illegally, they should feel comfortable and safe taking any issue of redress to their local courthouse. Courts are neutral territory. You go there and hash out differences, and a judge or a jury identifies winners and losers. But if there's a chance you'll be a "loser" before even stating your case, who would go there?

The most egregious example of the year likely is the February case out of El Paso County, Texas, in which an undocumented woman wanted to report a boyfriend she accused of abusing her. She was driven to the courthouse by a victim's advocate from a shelter. Before she had her day in court, ICE agents detained her for potential deportation.

Who knew the exact time and location of the hearing? The woman's alleged abuser, for one.

Here in Oregon, as in Texas, judges are expressing grave concern over ICE raids on courthouses. "The courthouse is the only place where people can get access to justice," said Judge Nan Waller, the presiding judge of Oregon's largest trial court.

Notice what she said there? "People," not "documented citizens."

So credit goes to Bonamici and Blumenauer for pushing HR 1815, which would broaden the definition of safe havens. Even though we know it has zero chance of getting signed into law. The White House, with the fervent backing of Congress, is pushing for stricter immigration enforcement, not creating more safe zones.

A bill to encourage everyone, regardless of immigration status, to access our nation's courtrooms?

This sounds like a job for St. Jude.

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