Oregon’s Mandatory Voting Law Backfires, Could Lead To Primary Disenfranchisement

REUTERS/Steve Dipaola

Joanne W. Young Managing Partner, Kirstein & Young
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Oregon was the first state to enact a system of automatic or mandatory voter registration. At the beginning of 2016, Oregon began mandatorily registering its citizens to vote when they visited the Department of Motor Vehicles, changing from an “opt-in” to an “opt-out” registration system. Liberals hailed this as a leap forward in making voting easier for everyone and encouraging broader engagement by citizens in our democracy.

Mandatory voter registration is a new experiment in the United States, and there is no proof it will meet its intended goals. Indeed, there is evidence from other countries, such as Canada, that have had systems of mandatory voter registration for years that, instead of increasing voter engagement and turnout, it actually decreases it.

Polls show no increase in turnout can be expected in the U.S. under mandatory voter registration. The reasons most eligible citizens who could register to vote choose not to register are because they are not interested in the election or the candidates, believe their vote will not make a difference, or do not wish to participate in politics. It is not because they lack the opportunity to register, as claimed by proponents of mandatory registration.

Importantly, the mandatory voter registration system in Oregon demonstrates that not only will mandatory voter registration likely not help with voter turnout and engagement, it may actually disenfranchise a portion of newly registered voters who do want to exercise their right to vote.

Oregon is a closed primary state, meaning that only those voters registered with a political party may vote in that party’s primary. The government cannot choose a party for a person, so by default, all new voters registered through the mandatory voter registration system are registered as nonaffiliated votersTo be registered with a party, new voters, who did not take the initiative to register to vote, must take the initiative to proactively indicate a party on a follow-up postcard they mail back to the Secretary of State.

At the end of April, only 16 percent of new voters had returned the postcard selecting a party. Fully 76 percent of newly registered voters did not return the card at all, meaning they are registered to vote but registered as not affiliated with any party. The Oregon presidential primary is May 17, and the deadline for registering with a party was April 26.

What does this mean for Oregon voters? Mandatory registration makes it more difficult to vote in a primary. While a share of the 76 percent of new “voters” are likely never to vote, given the interest this year’s presidential election has generated, a percentage of them may well be interested in voting in the primary. This group, which reasonably may assume since they are registered to vote, they can vote in the most interesting presidential primary in Oregon’s memory, will instead be disenfranchised.  

Further complicating matters, Oregon is an entirely vote-by-mail state, meaning that those non-affiliated voters have not even received a ballot and may not realize they are being disenfranchised.

Oregon is seen as one of the most liberal, progressive states in the country and would seem to be fertile ground for Senator Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders is polling quite well in Oregon, and many of his supporters are people who have previously been disinterested in politics. Sanders supporters may form a large portion of those newly automatically registered voters who actually wish to vote in the primary, not realizing they are not registered with a party and therefore unable to vote for Sen. Sanders as they would like. While Donald Trump has been declared the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, if the Republican nomination were still contested, some of his supporters would likely have been in a similar situation as those supporting Sen. Sanders.

This disenfranchisement will undoubtedly help the “establishment” candidate, Hillary Clinton. Establishment Democrats were already registered with the Democratic party and understand the system, unlike many new-to-the-process Sanders voters. How much of an impact this will have on the election will be difficult to measure. Yet just as with the controversial, unelected, not-bound-by-the-voters in their state, Democratic Party Super Delegates, it seems once again likely that the will of Democratic Party primary voters will not be fairly reflected in the Oregon results. Instead, what is almost certain is that there will be a percentage of newly automatically registered voters in Oregon who are disenfranchised in Oregon’s closed primary.