3 Simple Tricks to Change the Game

Oregon just changed the game. New Motor Voter, the state’s landmark bill to shift responsibility for voter registration from citizens to the government, is attracting national attention. As a key driver of the coalition that developed and advanced this legislation, we wanted to offer our perspective on what made it possible:

Legislators and coalition members look on as Governor Brown signs New Motor Voter into law.

Legislators and coalition members look on as Governor Brown signs New Motor Voter into law.

Passing New Motor Voter required:

  1. A broad and powerful coalition supportive of the policy framework to move policymakers to support the legislation and make it a priority on a crowded docket
  2. A policy proposal crafted to suit the needs and the administrative capacity of the state, developed by local experts
  3. A deeply supportive secretary of state, committed both to passage and implementation

We got to this place due to the unique commitment of Oregon’s progressive infrastructure to voter registration. In 2009, the Oregon Bus Project, Oregon Student Association, OSPIRG, AFSCME, and the Oregon Education Association proposed legislation to make Oregon the 4th state in the country to embrace online voter registration, after running grassroots voter registration drives to reach tens of thousands of Oregonians — realizing that systems reform could accomplish the same with a stroke of the pen. This effort forged a partnership between advocates and then-Secretary of State Kate Brown, and began a conversation about moving to automatic voter registration.

Secretary Brown and Bus Organizer Brown present on the New Motor Voter concept before the 2015 session.

Secretary Brown and Bus Organizer Brown present on the New Motor Voter concept before the 2015 session.

As the war on voting ramped up between 2010 and 2012, Oregon’s progressive institutions — labor unions, civil and human rights organizations, community organizations, environmental groups — became more committed to protecting and expanding the right to vote. In the days following the 2012 election, the Bus brought together groups around a bold voting rights proposal. With leadership from the 2009 partners as well as SEIU and Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy organization, the coalition agreed to prioritize a simple-but-ambitious policy framework–the set of principles that would eventually become New Motor Voter.

When these organizations began shopping this policy framework to elected leaders, Secretary Brown immediately endorsed the concept and set to work on an updated bill draft. When the Secretary of State and the voting rights coalition began approaching lawmakers, the diversity and the power of the coalition quickly got us the support we needed among chamber leadership and a majority in the House. The bill ended up dying narrowly in the Senate on a 15-15 vote.

In the two years following 2013’s setback, the coalition continued to support the legislation and Secretary Brown worked on a few changes to neutralize some opposition from county governments. When the new legislature met in 2015, political dynamics had changed slightly. Secretary Brown soon became Governor. The coalition and the new Governor doubled down on the push for the bill, securing victory in both chambers.

What We’ve Learned

Oregon’s victory follows from the same approach we’ve seen work in multiple states recently to move pro-active voting rights legislation, including New Motor Voter; Colorado’s Election Modernization bill; and both Online Voter Registration and Same Day Registration in Illinois. In all states, victory depended on:

  • building and engaging a strong and diverse coalition to craft and support the policy;
  • a policy framework suited to the needs and capacity of the local community;
  • support (or at least neutrality) from key election administrators.

What’s Next in Oregon

The same coalition that powered the legislative victory is now working together on 1) implementation — the rulemaking and nuts-and-bolts work that needs to happen by the state and counties for the new law to be implemented properly, and 2) engagement — educating, engaging, and mobilizing the 300,000-500,000 new voters expected to be registered by the new law as well as registration efforts targeting the many voters who will not yet be registered under New Motor Voter. For this bill to become a national model, we first need to prove that it can be effective in transforming our democracy.

Moving to Other States

newmotorvoter-caAlready, Oregon’s bill is capturing the imagination of voting rights advocates across the country. California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla has already introduced a similar bill and state legislators across the country have requested drafts. The Bus argues that the success of gamechanging policy in other states will depend on the same framework that has driven success in Oregon (and Illinois and Colorado): strong and diverse local coalitions, policy crafted to meet the local lay of the land, and effectively securing support of or neutrality of election administrators. When prioritizing where to invest resources to support coalitions, the Bus also considers the legislative politics of a state. The Bus is currently talking to a number of national networks about strategies to advance bolder policy. These conversations are in addition to engagement with national voting rights policy organizations, as well as organizations who specialize in media and culture.

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