In the shadow of higher-profile legislation, the 2019 Oregon legislature continued the state’s bipartisan tradition of making it easier to vote.
While other states wrestle with election security and voter suppression, Oregon’s vote-by-mail is relatively immune from cyber-attacks and has routinely promoted higher voter turnout.
Oregon lawmakers took vote-by-mail one step further by approving Senate Bill 861 that provides for pre-paid postage on ballots. The legislation was supported by the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, his successor Bev Clarno, Governor Brown and The Bus Project.
Pre-paid postage is viewed as another way to encourage voting, even though voters now can drop off ballots at local election offices. Some lawmakers questioned the cost of pre-paid ballots, which is estimated to run somewhere between $2-$3 million. Washington and California also have approved pre-paid ballots.
Clarno carried forward Senate Bill 224, which was introduced at Richardson’s request, to address election issues by preventing voters from being purged from registration rolls because of inactivity and allowing military and overseas voters to request ballots electronically.
House Bill 2015 modified Oregon’s Motor Voter Act, which tied obtaining a driver’s license with automatic voter registration. Under state and federal law, proof of citizenship is required to register to vote. HB 2015 allows individuals without proof of citizenship to obtain a valid driver’s license without automatic voter registration.
The legislature did address one aspect of digital democracy by approving Senate Bill 761 that imposes strict requirements on the use of electronic signature sheets, known as e-sheets, for gathering signatures for initiatives or referenda. Under the measure, e-sheets must contain the full text of an initiative or referendum and require signatures in multiple places.
In her post-session newsletter, Clarno cited her objection to SB 761, which she said would make e-sheets harder to employ to the disadvantage of rural Oregon voters where hand collection of signatures can be prohibitively expensive. Clarno noted the validity rate of measures using e-sheets is higher than paper petitions.
Clarno, a Republican, is a former Central Oregon lawmaker and House Speaker. She ran unsuccessfully for Oregon Treasurer in 1996. She returned to elective office as a state senator in 2000, then resigned in 2003 to take a position with the George W. Bush administration in the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Brown appointed Clarno as secretary of state after Richardson’s death earlier this year. At the time, Brown indicated she wanted to appoint a successor who wouldn’t run for the office in 2020.
So far, there are no declared candidates from either party for secretary of state, though the names that often pops up is current House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, who came to the legislature in 2007 and has been speaker since the 2013 legislative session, and Representative Dan Rayfield, the Corvallis Democrat who is also Co-Chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Richardson was a Republican from Southern Oregon who served in the House and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014 against then incumbent John Kitzhaber. Richardson’s election in 2016 as secretary marked the first time Oregon elected a Republican to the post since Norma Paulus in 1980. He was the first Republican to win statewide office since 2002 when Gordon Smith was elected to the US Senate. Richardson died at age 69 from a rare form of brain cancer.