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Politics & Government

Push to make it even easier to vote in Oregon sparks hot debate

Democrats sit idle on the Oregon House floor as they await confirmation of a quorum with nearly all Republicans absent on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Sam Stites
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Democrats sit idle on the Oregon House floor as they await confirmation of a quorum with nearly all Republicans absent on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Plan to allow Oregonians to use Social Security numbers in online voting registration forms narrowly passes House vote. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

A bill making it easier for Oregonians to register to vote online cleared its first hurdle towards becoming law Wednesday, but not without tension.

Members of Oregon’s House of Representatives approved the new law 33 to 23 with four excused.

What seemed like an innocuous plan to expand ways voters can register became a political proving ground between Republicans and Democrats.

The bill itself is fairly straightforward: those without a driver’s license or state-issued identification card can now use the last four digits of their Social Security number and submit their signature via the internet to register to vote.

It would also allow third-party organizations approved by the state’s elections division to submit registration cards on behalf of voters; similar to how organizations currently do when registering people to vote at political rallies or on college campus street corners.

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, the bill’s chief sponsor and a Eugene Democrat, said that the intent is to remove barriers for those without DMV-issued identification, many of whom also belong to demographic groups with historically low participation in Oregon’s electoral process.

That includes veterans, people of color, those with disabilities and low-income individuals.

“Oregonians will still have the option of filling out a paper registration form if they don’t have access to the internet or if that’s just what they prefer,” Fahey said. “I want to be very clear that this bill does not make any changes to any of the existing rules or processes for verifying someone’s identity or citizenship.”

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the proposal received backing from institutions and organizations such as Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, the League of Women Voters of Oregon, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

But it also received strong opposition from a wide array of Oregonians who argue it opens up the state’s electoral system to fraud.

That opposition formed the basis for Wednesday’s floor debate, which saw Republican House members reviving erroneous and repeatedly disprove claims that rampant voter fraud led to Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election and others.

Several prominent members of the House Republican caucus — including its leader, Prineville Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson — have called for “forensic” audits of the state’s 2020 election results.

Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said after reading through much of the testimony submitted on the bill, he concluded the voter registration proposal would invite fraud.

“We’ve seen the ill effects of ballot harvesting here in Oregon,” he said. “So Oregon should certainly not expand our voting registration process to potentially incorporate voter harvesting”

Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, argued that attempts to besmirch the plan, known as House Bill 4133, were grounded in misinformation and “fear-mongering.”

“It has been asked: Why make it easier?” Hudson said. “Because it is our job to make it as easy as possible for our citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.”

Rep. Kim Wallan, a Medford Republican and the GOP caucus’ second in command, said that her opposition and that of many of her colleagues had less to do with its content and more with the lack of trust between the two parties at this moment.

“On its face, this bill makes tons of sense,” she said. “Every discussion point that the Democrats have made is exactly correct: It should be easier. (The current system) is more expensive. It is less likely to result in fraud.

“If that was all we were talking about,” Wallan continued, “then everyone would vote for this bill. But there’s so much suspicion and so much mistrust and so many things that get said and thrown around these days, that even something like this, that should just be a simple modernization, isn’t trusted.”

Fahey closed the impassioned debate by saying that those concerned about this bill opening the system to fraud are really stating that they already believe there’s fraud within Oregon’s electoral process.

“Now that’s become a pretty popular pastime these days in some quarters for folks who actively work to undermine the trust in our election system,” Fahey said. “Frankly, I think the fall of democracy lies down that road … not down the road of this bill, which is just allowing people to enter the same information on a screen versus on a piece of paper.”

The bill now heads to the Oregon Senate, where it will be considered in committee next week and voted upon shortly after.

The day’s floor session concluded with an awkward display of sparring between the two parties with each taking the opportunity during the remonstrance period — a time for lawmakers to give speeches on bills they’re working on or any other topic of their choice.

Several House members stood to fire negative comments about “leadership and courage” toward the opposition, and even members of their own party.

Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, went as far as to accuse Hudson of making comments that “impugned half the members of this body.”

The drama ended with a call by House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, for members to “take the tone down a little bit.”

“I wish people would take it down a little bit because I don’t really think it is warranted to escalate this scenario,” Holvey said.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.