SALEM — In Oregon — where its first-in-the-nation automatic-voter registration system has been hailed as a pioneer in knocking down voter-access barriers — it takes just five years of failing to participate in an election before a registered voter gets knocked from the active voter rolls and no longer receives a ballot in the mail.
Roughly 400,000 registered Oregonian voters have been flagged as inactive at some point in time, a number that this year is expected to grow by another 30,000 who registered during the 2012 general election when President Barack Obama was up for re-election.
For Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, five years isn't long enough. So this year, he's doubling that timeline to 10 years.
Richardson, the state's first Republican secretary of state in more than 30 years and the first Republican to hold a statewide elected office in 14 years, says that will immediately preserve the statuses of those soon-to-be-inactive voters this year. The change will also be applied retroactively, potentially reactivating another 30,000 or so currently inactive voters by leveraging DMV databases that Richardson's agency already uses to administer the so-called Oregon Motor Voter program.
"This change will protect or restore the voting rights of Oregonians serving our country on military deployments, college students and voters frustrated with the political system," said Richardson, who made the announcement during his first press conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Salem.
Oregon's trailblazing Motor Voter law — now replicated in a handful of other states plus Washington D.C., and a few others are currently considering following suit — has so far registered more than 314,000 Oregonians since its January 2016 inception. Those new voters, about 12 percent of the 2.6 million registered voters statewide, and overall voter excitement during last year's wild presidential campaign season helped push Oregon voter turnout to over 80 percent in November.
But Richardson says it doesn't make sense to be adding thousands of new voters through Motor Voter every year, while simultaneously purging thousands from that same active-voter list because they didn't cast a ballot for five years.
He notes that five years is the minimum amount of time for inactive voter status under state law. But there's not a maximum, so his office plans to extend the timeline to 10 years via an administrative rule change without the need for the Legislature's permission.
The move has garnered some bipartisan support from lawmakers, some of whom joined Tuesday's event along with leaders of the Oregon Republican Party and the Independent Party of Oregon, the state's second-and third-largest major parties, respectively.
But the absence of the Democratic Party of Oregon, the state's biggest major party, and its new chair, former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins and Richardson's immediate predecessor, prompted questions from reporters.
"The Democratic Party leadership was invited, all parties were invited, they chose not to attend," Richardson said.