In the past two years, Oregon has improved multilingual access to ballot instructions, made it easier to register to vote and strengthened privacy and legal protections for election workers subject to harassment as former President Donald Trump spread false conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 election.
Oregon has served as a decades-long model for a universal vote-by-mail system that was embraced by other states during the COVID-19 pandemic and now made permanent by some of them.
But attempts in 2021 and 2022 to eliminate disenfranchisement of people who have been convicted of felonies never advanced to votes in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. People serving prison sentences for felonies in Oregon, who are disproportionately Black, have their voting rights suspended until they serve their sentence or receive parole.
State officials have also been criticized for clinging to a partisan redistricting system that has been used to gerrymander districts to position Democrats to win the most possible seats. A coalition of voting rights organizations, People Not Politicians, wants to amend the state’s constitution and create an independent redistricting commission via a ballot initiative, but delays associated with legal challenges prevented them from doing so in 2022, according to the Oregon Capitol Chronicle.
People Not Politicians announced in August that it is trying again for 2024.
Easier registration, language assistance
Since a ballot measure in 1998 adopted a vote-by-mail system, Oregon automatically mails every eligible registered voter a ballot. They can be returned with the prepaid postage provided by the state, at a drop box or at a voter’s local election office or voting center.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Registering to vote is easy in Oregon, too. Residents are automatically registered through the state’s department of motor vehicles. A new law passed by the Oregon Legislature in March allows people to register to vote with the last four digits of their Social Security number. The law also allows people to submit the information online along with a digital copy of their signature. Previously, a state driver’s license or some other form of state ID was required.
Oregon lawmakers have made voting more equitable since the 2020 election by targeting parts of the process that disproportionately affected lower-income voters, people of color and people with disabilities.
Changes approved by the state legislature in 2021 and 2022 include:
- Expanding ballot language access by requiring the secretary of state to make sure state and county voter pamphlets are translated into different languages and that those pamphlets are available online.
- Accepting ballots after Election Day. Oregon will count ballots so long as they’re postmarked by Election Day. Previously, ballots had to be in the hands of election workers before polls closed to be counted.
- Prohibiting labeling voters as inactive, which would make someone ineligible from automatically receiving a ballot, for not voting.
“Oregon generally embraces a positive voting environment,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon. “All of these little changes around the edges help.”
Titus said the state could revisit further expanding its automatic voter registration system to allow registration to occur through other state agencies in the coming years.
Misinformation and harassment
Oregon lawmakers also created penalties for spreading misinformation about how to vote in Oregon in 2021 as well as passing personal information privacy protections for election workers to prevent the disclosure of their home addresses in 2022. In the former law, people who knowingly spread misinformation about how to vote in Oregon within 30 days of a primary or special election or within 60 days of a general election can face civil penalties up to $10,000. The law was advocated for by Common Cause Oregon with the aim of stopping misinformation that includes where people can vote in Oregon, who is eligible to vote and election deadlines.
Similarly, increasing privacy protection and shielding election workers from intimidation in the latter law included raising the misdemeanor penalties for harassing election officials while doing their jobs.
A March 2022 Brennan Center survey of local election workers across the United States indicated about 77% of workers experienced some form of intimidation or harassment while doing their job in the last five years. About one in five election workers that the Brennan Center surveyed said they were unlikely to stay in their jobs through the 2024 election.
“Redistricting is a real black eye for Oregon,” said Rebecca Gladstone, president of Oregon’s League of Women Voters.
A coalition of voting rights organizations and other political operatives pushed for, and failed to, put a ballot initiative before voters in November that would establish an independent redistricting commission.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the maps an “F” for competitiveness and fairness.
Republicans have long protested redistricting that protects the majority Democrats’ hold on legislative power and congressional seats.
But Titus said Oregon’s current maps, while unfair and uncompetitive, pale in comparison to some of the extreme gerrymandering in states like North Carolina.
Felony voting rights
Advocates have criticized the Democrats in control of the Oregon legislature over the compounding inequity of felony disenfranchisement and the way the state has drawn voting districts.
Oregon’s redistricting process in 2021 once again drew boundaries that counted incarcerated people in the district where they are imprisoned instead of their hometowns, despite those people not having the right to vote while in prison, Titus said, giving more power to predominantly white districts that house prisons and less to the communities of imprisoned people who are disproportionately Black.
Currently, people serving prison sentences for felonies in Oregon cannot vote while incarcerated. Upon release or parole, felons must re-register to vote, which is a barrier in itself, said Zach Winston, director of policy and outreach at the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
Winston said legislation to restore voting rights to incarcerated people will be reintroduced in the 2023 legislative session and has a strong chance of passing with contentious midterm elections out of the way. If blocked, it’s possible it could go to a ballot initiative, he said.
Allowing felons to vote while incarcerated would also make it easier for people to vote who are awaiting trial or serving misdemeanors because someone’s status in the criminal justice system can be fluid and determining who is eligible to vote can change from one to the other.
“When you start picking and choosing who can and can’t vote, you create all sorts of problems,” Winston said. “If we can re-enfranchise those in prison, we can build out some structure for corrections as a whole.”
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