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Oregon is first state to adopt automatic voter registration

Oregon Governor Kate Brown held up an automatic voter registration bill after signing it on Monday in Salem, Ore.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown held up an automatic voter registration bill after signing it on Monday in Salem, Ore.(Don Ryan/Associated Press)

SALEM, Ore. — Seventeen years after Oregon decided to become the first state to hold all elections with mail-in ballots, it took another pioneering step on Monday to broaden participation by automatically registering people to vote.

Governor Kate Brown signed a bill that puts the burden of registration on the state instead of voters.

Under the legislation, every adult citizen in Oregon who has interacted with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division since 2013 but hasn’t registered to vote will receive a ballot in the mail at least 20 days before the next statewide election. The measure is expected to add about 300,000 voters to the rolls.

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‘‘It just changes expectations for who’s responsible for making elections work,’’ said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and director of the Elections Research Center. ‘‘In every other state it’s the responsibility for the voters to make sure it happens.’’

Some other states have considered such legislation but none has gone as far as Oregon.

Minnesota nearly implemented automatic voter registration in 2009 before the plan was vetoed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, who said ‘‘registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act.’’

Similar concerns were raised by Oregon’s minority Republicans.

‘‘Simply because it makes us unique or makes us first does not necessarily mean that it actually improves on what we’re doing,’’ said state Senator Jackie Winters, a Republican from Salem.

Oregon Republicans also voiced worry about potential voter fraud, the cost of implementing the measure, and whether the DMV can ensure personal information remains secure.

Information the DMV has on file, such as age, residential information, signature, and citizenship status, will be transferred to the secretary of state, who will then automatically update registration information.

When it came up for a vote in the state Senate last week, all Republicans and one Democrat voted against it. The Democrats hold an 18-to-12 advantage in the Senate so the bill easily passed.

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