It’d be very fitting if Automatic Voter Registration plays a critical role in the reelection of Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
Whether you’re new or old to Oregon, you probably have swung through the Department of Motor Vehicles recently, and you probably updated your home address on your license to wherever you live now that you didn’t live the last time you stopped by. In 2015, Oregon became the first state in America to register citizens to vote every time they the DMV — Governor Kate Brown signed the legislation less than three months after signing in following the abrupt end to Kitzhaber’s tenure. The state added an additional 500,000 voters to the rolls since the last midterm election; that’s equivalent to the population of Eugene, Gresham, Hillsboro, Bend and Beaverton combined. Studies of turnout from the 2016 election suggest that these newly registered voters are demographically more representative of the state of Oregon as a whole, with significant increases in the larger numbers of lower income Oregonians, young Oregonians, nonwhite Oregonians, rural Oregonians. Registrants through Oregon’s Motor Voter made up 87 percent of people registered to vote and constituted 4.7 percent of all Oregon voters in the 2016 election. New Motor Voter pairs nicely with Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, in which every Oregonian gets a ballot delivered to their house three weeks before the election. They can be dropped off at libraries and other drop sites as well, leading up to the polls closing on election night.
Nationally, the ugly, naked, impossible-to-deny racist intentions and outcomes of voter suppression haven’t been this explicit in generations. After decades of conservative legal posturing, a Supreme Court decision in 2013 stripped crucial elements of arguably America’s high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act. Whether it’s Native Americans in North Dakota, African Americans in North Carolina, Latinx in Iowa, unquestionably a targeted project is underway to disenfranchise Americans’ right to the ballot. In Kansas and Georgia, the Republican running for governor happens also to be the secretary of state himself, each of them refusing to step down or allow any sort of independent review of their administration of the election. Suspiciously large numbers of black ballots in Georgia keep coming up missing. Considering the literal bloodshed paid by Americans nonviolently demanding the right to vote, the evisceration of voting rights is an alarming trend in a democracy already badly bludgeoned by deliberate initiatives at gerrymandering, stacked courts, corporate money, complicity with white nationalists. There’s simply no good-faith argument to be had that this systemic rigging of our democracy will lead to anything other than disaster. The disaster is going to reach the most vulnerable among us the first.
Oregon’s Automatic Registration looks pretty important in that context! Numerous states around the country immediately followed Oregon’s suits, including biggies like California, registering millions of new voters. With Oregon turnout already ten percent higher in 2018 than it was at this point in the midterm election four years previous, that ten percent increase is an additional 200,000 votes cast ahead of last midterm’s pace. The internet murmurs are that if the Democrats take back the house next year, they’ll introduce voting reforms nationally, spurred on by the success here in Oregon and elsewhere.
It’d be fitting if this was the policy that cemented Kate Brown’s releection. It’s good government — every candidate, school bond, ballot measure, whatever that heads to the ballot box is going to have to actively seek the votes and support of a larger group of Oregonians that more accurately reflect the demography of the state. It’s deliberately empowering historically underrepresented Oregonians across all sorts of party line affiliation, geography and life experience to participate more fully in democracy’s most sacred civic ritual. It creates direct lines of accountability that put more pressure on politicians’s jobs if they don’t attempt to fairly represent a larger number of their constituents. If our society has even a fraction of a chance of making the changes we need to see on climate, health care policy, guns, schools, or even just bigotry itself, we have to be deliberately empowering these communities to vote, to cast a ballot and validate their lived experiences that they’ve borne witness to while existing in the beautiful, deeply imperfect American project.
In the context of this election, it’s all the more fitting that Knute “Moderate” Buehler voted party-line with the Republicans in 2015 to oppose Automatic Voter Registration, which will go down in the Oregon public policy Mt Rushmore along with recycling, cogent land use laws, and the nation’s first gas tax in 1919.* The dude’s a phony, and any real analysis of his positions and statements reflect an empty suit whose spent his career running for office more than actually governing in office. I relish the idea of a diversified, united Oregon rejecting the ostensibly “not shitty” Republican candidate who couldn’t stay on the right side of the ballot measure brought to the state by what the SPLC recognizes as extremist hate groups. I spent an evening phonebanking at APANO, and three times — three times! — I called a voter who spoke something other than English, and scrambled to find a young volunteer who could take over the phone and giddly break into extended conversations of Vietnamese, mandarin or cantonese and get a pledge to vote out of the human on the other end of the line. It’s thrilling that Oregon’s cabal of women could continue to defy the largely male pundits, politicians, journalists, and consultants across the state by demonstrating once again they know what the fuck they are doing, passing numerous major policy victories for health care funding, reproductive justice, gun control (and also winning elections).
Kudos to the many of you I know through my very limited (but personally very meaningful) role in the passage of automatic voter registration, kudos to all of you I’ve seen in the last few weeks hustling out the voter for a myriad of important causes, kudos to all I know that actually have the guts to run for public office yourself, kudos to those of you bringing your dogs, your kids, your friends to the ballot boxes, to the phonebanks, kudos to those of you I don’t know personally but have, similar to me, found that going on long walks and talking to voters is the best mental health hack I could possibly develop in the world we live in at the moment, Kudos to Kate Brown for passing Automatic Voter Registration, and kudos to those of you who are gonna vote on or before Tuesday.
2018: We’re gonna pull it off. But please go vote.
(*All of these could also use a good updating, let’s get Governor Brown reelected and then get to work)