Budget panel divides by party; Republicans tie issue to potential successor for governor.

The Oregon Legislature’s budget committee, on a party-line vote Friday with multiple political implications, cleared a bill providing for automatic voter registration upon obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.

The bill is a top priority for Secretary of State Kate Brown, who is next in line of succession if Gov. John Kitzhaber resigns amid influence-peddling allegations against him and first lady Cylvia Hayes.

A couple of hours after the committee vote, Kitzhaber announced his resignation, effective Feb. 18, when Brown will be sworn in as Oregon's 38th governor.

House Bill 2177 went to a vote of the full House with all committee Democrats for it and all Republicans against it. A similar bill failed on a tie vote in the Senate after the House passed it in 2013.

Democrats, however, have slightly larger majorities in both chambers this session, and Republicans acknowledged privately they lacked the votes to stop the bill.

“Let’s call it for what it is: This is a bill to elect more Democrats,” says Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons.

Girod also says that the bill “came from the person who will be our next governor.”

Brown would be governor until the 2016 general election, when voters would elect someone to complete the remaining two years of the term that Kitzhaber started on Jan. 12.

Brown was not present for Friday's vote, but her spokesman, Tony Green, was, as was her deputy secretary, Robert Taylor.

“Kate is very pleased about the progress of her top legislative priority, which will take a major step towards achieving her goal of putting a ballot in the hands of every eligible Oregonian,” Green said afterward.

The bill would register people automatically upon obtaining or renewing a driver’s license, if they are not already registered, and authorize the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division to transfer those records electronically to Oregon’s 36 counties and a statewide voter registration system.

It would bar transfer of records of those under age 18, those who are in the United States legally but are not citizens, and some people such as police officers and survivors of domestic violence whose records are not made public.

New voters would have 21 days, by returning a postcard, to opt out of registration or to choose a party affiliation. If they do not choose the latter, they would be enrolled with no party, a status known as “nonaffiliated,” not to be confused with the Independent Party — which now has major-party status.

“I believe it will empower and qualify more nonaffiliated voters,” says Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis.

Republicans, in addition to partisan implications, raised questions about computer security — the secretary of state had a data breach in 2014 — and adequate funding for counties, many in cash-strapped rural areas.

Brown says Oregon does well in participation of registered voters in elections, but not so well in the proportion of citizens registered to vote.

Estimates are that 400,000 would be added to Oregon’s current total of just under 2.2 million registered. Green says that would constitute about half of the 800,000 eligible but currently unregistered voters.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, says he recalls that he was ineligible to vote when he was 19 and an Army draftee in Vietnam. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in Oregon in 1971, and for federal elections starting in 1972.

“We should make it easy for people to vote in this country with minimal barriers,” Bates says. “That’s why I’m supporting this bill.”

Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, has on display in her Salem office a certificate of her grandfather paying a poll tax to enable him to vote in Topeka, Kan. Such a tax was outlawed for federal elections by a constitutional amendment in 1964, and for state elections by the federal courts by 1966.

“I do not want to trivialize the most precious gift we have in this country,” she says.

Although the bill cleared the committee with identical 7-5 votes from Senate and House members, it took a call to summon Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn, who was home ill. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, also invoked his prerogative to sit and vote on any committee to cast a vote for the bill.

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Adds that vote was taken a couple of hours before John Kitzhaber announced his resignation as governor and Secretary of State Brown will succeed him Feb. 18 Also corrects reference to Sen. Winters' grandfather paying a poll tax.