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​MASON: Oregon is doing its job — can Congress?

Oregon’s new voter registration law should serve as a model for other states

Everyone hates Congress. Yet, voter participation in the United States remains below that of most developed democracies, and Congress is doing nothing about it. Last week, Oregon became the first state to institute automatic voter registration. Instead of Oregonians going through the process of voter registration when they turn 18, the state will instead pick up the burden. Using information from the Driver and Motor Vehicle Division, 300,000 of Oregon’s 800,000 unregistered voters will soon be able to cast a ballot.

Undoubtedly, voting is the most essential right of our democracy, and Oregon understands this. More than any other right, the sanctity of voting is affirmed six times in the American constitution via the 1st, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th amendments. However, 30 states are ardently regressive in the protection of this fundamental right. Under the guise of “protecting ballot integrity,” voter ID laws in these states are disenfranchising 11 percent of the eligible voting population. The U.S Congress needs to take immediate action, following the example of Oregon, to reverse this trend of voter disenfranchisement.

Indeed, there are more paradigms for voter participation than ever before, from which the United States can draw inspiration. Australia fines its citizens who do not vote, Oregon uses an all-mail-in ballot system and advanced democracies such as France and Belgium hold elections on holidays and weekends. On March 18, President Obama flirted with the idea of mandatory voting during a speech in Cleveland. He said, “It would be transformative if everybody voted.” It would be transformative — the President’s heart is in the right place — but mandatory voting is not the way in which we should be headed. Free speech means Americans have as much a right to vote as they do not to vote. And as affirmed numerous times by constitutional amendments, supporting legislation and Supreme Court decisions, this right ought to be exercised free of any unnecessary impediments.

In light of this, there is a bill that Congress could pass today to further ease American voting access. One such bill is the “Democracy Day Act of 2014,” introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which would make Federal Election Day a public holiday. The effect would immediately be a paid day off for many government employees and would likely have a domino effect of encouraging many private sector industries to do the same. This would eliminate for many Americans one of the biggest voting impediments — an eight to 12 hour work day.

However, Sanders’ one bill is not enough; Congress needs to do more. It can start by making Oregon’s new policy initiative the law of the land. All states should be required to use already existent data, from their Driver Motor Vehicle Bureaus or the Social Security Administration, to register eligible voters. This method of registration is already tried and tested in Canada, Sweden and Argentina, all of which have levels of voter registration between 90 and 100 percent. Admittedly, there are currently no data or research to affirm the economic cost of implementation of such a measure in the United States.

But the reality is a large portion of eligible voters are not voting. Voter registration has hovered at around 71 percent since 1992. Actual voting has not surpassed 64 percent since at least 1960, and dipped as low as 34 percent in midterm elections. Such lethargic participation runs the risk of America becoming a discredited democracy fueled by the votes of the old and wealthy at the expense of the young and working class. To be sure, very few Americans approve of Congress’ handling of legislative affairs, but will citizens respect the law of the land if they have very little influence in its creation?

History tells us no. Monarchies disintegrated the world over, and America fought a war to separate itself from a country in which it had no representation. The effect was the creation of the ‘world’s greatest democracy.’ However, as congressional dysfunction reaches new heights, domestic inequalities continue to exist and America faces renewed attacks from abroad, this democracy is threatened. The current state of voter participation leaves our democracy vulnerable to sustained political unrest, which has always been the fundamental pillar of political revolution. It is thus a national imperative that meaningful legislation be passed to address low voter registration and disenfranchisement.

Jahvonta Mason is a third-year in the College and the Chair of Marketing for the Black Male Initiative.