12 Nov

Unlike other states, Oregon tries to expand voting, and gets noticed

All American citizens, of course, have certain rights.

It’s just that in some places, they don’t have quite as many.

Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot,” has found that the United States is in the middle of two different ballot trends: one with states expanding the right to vote, one with states working hard to narrow it.

Fortunately, Oregon is part of the American trend.

In fact, we’re driving it.

Berman appeared last Saturday at Wordstock, Portland’s resurfacing annual book festival, where crowds gave a participatory display that underlined Oregon’s expansive attitude toward citizenship. The event stood in sharp contrast to the theme of Berman’s book, that across the country many states’ political leaders are using voter identification requirements and other strategies to limit voting by what they consider the wrong kind of people.

The strategy has been helped by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision largely gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act – now celebrating a somewhat melancholy 50th anniversary – on the grounds that everything in America was now racially swell.

As a result, Berman said after his appearance Saturday, a General Accounting Office study found that Kansas and Tennessee – two of the most enthusiastic practitioners of selective admission to voting – managed to reduce their electorate by 2 percent to 3 percent, with particular drops in (say it all together) African American, young and low-income voters.

Then there’s Oregon, land of mail voting and – as of this year’s legislative session – automatic voter registration for anybody in the files of the Department of Motor Vehicles, a move expected to increase our potential voters by 300,000.

“As so many states restrict voting rights, other states like Oregon are aggressively expanding them,” Berman told an audience of about 200 at Wordstock. “Oregon is leading the way in expanding voting rights, a model for the rest of the country.

“What you’re doing is very important. People need to see that there is an alternative vision.”

Oregon has taken a while to get to its voting expansions. It took about a decade of argument back in the 1990s before we settled on vote-by-mail – which Berman, like a lot of Easterners, still doesn’t entirely believe could work in their grittier locales – and two legislative sessions, and the election of two more Democrats to the state Senate, before the passage of DMV registration.\

But once established here, they spread. Vote-by-mail has now advanced, with somewhat different rules, into Washington and California and other states. Registration by the DMV has now advanced – in what Berman calls a domino effect – into California, where registered voters might increase by as many as six million.

(Along with vote-by-mail and DMV registration, California has now also borrowed assisted suicide from Oregon, raising the issue of who is now the trend-setter state. Oregonians might have mixed feelings about adding six million Californians to the voting rolls, but how else are you going to set the rules of beach volleyball?)

Monday, The New York Times reported the formation of a new group called iVote, led by political operatives from the Obama and Clinton administrations, seeking to raise $10 million to spread DMV voter registration state-by-state. Bills have been introduced in 17 state legislatures, and there are others where it might be advanced through initiative measure.

“I do think it can be a complete game-changer,” explained the group’s leader, Jeremy Bird, who directed the Obama 2012 voter turnout effort. “It’s definitely countering what we see as a very well-funded and organized effort by the Republican Party across the country to chip away at voting rights.”

Possibly he has read Berman’s book.

Making the same point from the other side, Kansas secretary of state Kris W. Kobach, a leading national advocate of restrictive voting and tightening his own state’s rules, firmly opposes DMV registration, warning darkly, “You’re going to end up with aliens on the voting rolls.”

Saturday, thousands of Oregonians swarmed four different venues on the South Park Blocks to greet the reappearance of Wordstock, crowding into a dozen rooms to listen to authors and maybe get a book signed. The day reflected Oregon’s belief, at our best, that lots of people should be involved with debates and ideas, even if some other places have adopted the convenience of limiting the number who get to make decisions.

“It would be very unfortunate if the United States moved to a two-tier democracy,” said Berman afterward, “where it’s easy to vote in Oregon and hard to vote in Texas.”

Possibly Oregon can have something to say about that.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/11/15.