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Oregon Democrats pass bill to expand online voter registration

Oregon lawmakers are finishing up their annual session at the state Capitol.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Oregon lawmakers are finishing up their annual session at the state Capitol.

House Bill 4133 makes a modest change to how some voters can register online. But Republicans say it could make elections less secure.

A bill to simplify voter registration in Oregon is headed to Gov. Kate Brown over Republican objections that it could make the state’s voter rolls less safe.

House Bill 4133 contains a relatively simple tweak that will allow people who don’t have state-issued IDs like driver’s licenses to register to vote online.

Because those people don’t have a signature on file with state officials, they are currently limited to filing a paper form to register. That form includes a signature, their name and the last four digits of their social security number, which is then cross referenced against a federal database.

Advocates say the process is unwieldy and makes it unnecessarily difficult for people without state IDs to register.

“This gap in our law creates an additional barrier to registering Oregonians without a state-issued ID to vote, who are often the same groups who are historically underrepresented in our elections: our service members, seniors, low-income people, people of color and young people,” said state Sen. Akasha Lawrence-Spence, D-Portland, who carried the bill on the Senate floor.

Backers of the change also say the process of manually entering data from paper forms is costly, and prone to human error. According to the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, a group backing the bill, “there were 200,000 paper registration forms submitted in Oregon for the 2020 election, generating labor costs of approximately $900,000 in processing and data entry.”

Under HB 4133, elections officials will be able to accept online voter registrations using just the last four digits of a person’s social security number and an image of their signature. That information will then be cross-checked with federal information, just like the current paper forms.

The bill also allows third-party organizations approved by the Oregon secretary of state, who oversees elections, to submit electronic registrations on behalf of voters. Advocates say that will help bolster get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Despite its relative simplicity, HB 4133 has been contentious, becoming a proxy fight of sorts for the deep distrust some conservative voters have in state elections. Republican lawmakers universally opposed the bill, suggesting that the opportunity for third-party organizations to submit registrations, in particular, could lead to trouble.

“What we want to do is make things more secure,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said before a vote Thursday. “We don’t believe this actually does this. I am opposed to third-party interruption of the voting process.”

Democrats say those fears are unfounded, since Oregon already allows people to register using only a social security number. Nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws similar to HB 4133.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 33-23, and the Senate 18-7. Both votes were along party lines.

Oregon has long been a leader in increasing voter access. In 2015, the state passed a pioneering “motor voter” law that automatically registers eligible citizens to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s license or register a car. Oregon was also the first state to conduct its elections completely using mail-in ballots.

While those methods are popular, and frequently held up as nationwide models, faith in elections has deteriorated since former President Donald Trump began spreading the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

As a result, testimony against HB 4133 was packed with distrustful claims the law would inject opportunities for cheating. Similar sentiment arose last year, when lawmakers passed a bill allowing mailed ballots to be accepted if they were postmarked by Election Day, a policy that kicked in this year. Previously, ballots had to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

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

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.