Oregon leads nation in encouraging people to vote
Given our pioneer heritage, it's no wonder Oregonians take pride in blazing new trails of public policy. Whether it's a law putting bounty on discarded bottles or protecting our beaches from development, the state has a rich history of adopting unconventional approaches to problems.
Nowhere are our bragging rights more timely — or important — these days than in giving residents access to ballots. Two decades ago voters here made Oregon the first state in the union to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. Two years ago, Oregon became the first to implement a statewide "motor voter" law, automatically registering residents to vote when they get or renew their driver's license. Those voters remain on the rolls unless they opt out or fail to cast a ballot during a five-year period.
Vote-by-mail and Motor Voter both were aimed at removing obstacles to participating in the democratic process.
That's Oregon. It's not the same story everywhere.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took the country in the other direction, upholding a controversial purge of Ohio voters. The state has been one of the most aggressive in the nation in limiting ballot access, removing people from Ohio's voter rolls if they fail to cast a ballot over six years.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on the losing side of the 5-4 vote, chastised her colleagues in the majority for ignoring "the history of voter suppression (and) disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters."
It's no secret that those low-income and minority voters disproportionately removed from the registration rolls tend to support Democrats and the court ruling is expected to prompt other GOP-controlled states to follow Ohio's lead.
That's why Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's efforts to continue Oregon's tradition of expanding voting rights are all the more commendable.
A year ago, Richardson — the only Republican to hold statewide office in Oregon — bucked his party and doubled the time it takes to deem a voter inactive, from five years to 10.
In making the announcement, Richardson recruited several lawmakers who supported the bill, including fellow Republican Jodi Hack.
"The state's current system of rendering Oregonians inactive and ballotless punishes voters who for one reason or another have decided to opt out of previous elections, sidelining the voices of countless Oregonians," said Hack, who represented House District 19 in Marion County.
The state elections division estimates that Richardson's move will protect the voting rights of up to 60,000 Oregonians.
Given that nearly 1.8 million residents voted in the 2016 fall election, it's unlikely that the change will have an outcome on any particular election. But that calculus should never be part of the equation when it comes to access the ballot.
"Our democracy rests on the ability of all individuals, regardless of race, income, or status, to exercise their right to vote," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. "The majority of States have found ways to maintain accurate voter rolls without initiating removal processes based solely on an individual's failure to vote."
And in Oregon, we've gone a couple steps further, once again gaining national recognition for our efforts to make it as easy as possible for our residents to participate in the democratic process.
It's good to remind ourselves that persistent rumors of voter fraud prove to be false. There is no evidence of hundreds, or thousands, or millions (as President Trump has claimed) of people voting fraudulently in any U.S. election this century. Pressure to remove people from voter rolls serves only one person: to dissuade people from voting legally.
Oregon leads the way, and Republican Dennis Richardson leads the way. Let's hope the rest of the nation follows.
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