It turns out there's a surefire way to increase voter participation, and the proof is in Oregon.
As voters prepare to head to the polls for the state's May 17 presidential primary, leaders and voting rights advocates in the state are celebrating a major victory for democracy: a three-fold increase in the number of registered voters.
This year, Oregon became the first state to use a system called automatic voter registration. It's simple, effortless for voters, and cost-effective for the state -- eligible citizens who request or renew their licenses through the Department of Motor Vehicles are automatically enrolled as voters.
The result? So far this year, Oregon has registered an average of 12,889 new voters each month, up from 4,163 new voters each month in 2012, the last presidential election year, according to The Nation.
"Oregon’s system is truly groundbreaking—and it offers a clear path forward for states looking to make their elections more accessible and convenient for voters," the Brennan Center For Justice's Jonathan Brater wrote. "It costs less, increases the accuracy and security of our voter rolls, and curbs the potential for fraud."
For a country that holds democracy so dear, the U.S. lags embarrassingly behind other first-world nations when it comes to voter participation, as the Center for American Progress notes. In the U.K., 93 percent of eligible voters are registered; in Sweden, that number is 96 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. But here in the land of the free, only 65 percent of eligible voters are actually registered, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center.
As a result, voter participating has hit new lows in recent years. In the 2014 midterm election, only 36 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, the lowest rate since World War II. Things weren't better during the last presidential election year, when 90 million eligible voters failed to register or cast a vote in the 2012 contest between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Perhaps no other primary in recent memory has underscored the importance of voting than the 2016 primaries, with fiercely contested contests in both major parties drawing record numbers of Americans to the ballots. On the Republican side, presumptive nominee Donald Trump has set a record with almost 11 million votes, surpassing Romney's 2012 primary mark thanks in large part to an influx of first-time primary participants.
And it's not just getting people registered for the sake of it -- election data shows that when people are registered, they show up at the polls. In 2008, 90 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots, but only 64 percent of eligible voters were registered. Participation can be increased by potentially tens of millions if Oregon's example is used as a model for the rest of the country.
Up to 50 million new voters could be permanently added to the rolls, in fact, according to the Brennan Center. The center, which strongly advocates for automatic registration, also argues that tying registration to license applications and renewals will result in more accurate voting rolls, cutting down on errors and reducing the number of people who arrive at their local polling place only to find out they can't cast a ballot.
"Too many Americans go to vote on Election Day only to find their names are not on the voter rolls — often, wrongly deleted," according to the Brennan Center. "It’s time to modernize voter registration, bring our system into the 21st century, and ensure all eligible voters have a say in our democracy."
Thus far, it's been mostly Democrats championing automatic registration, and a map of states considering following Oregon's lead shows they're disproportionately blue, coastal states. Some Republicans have fallen back on the old argument that reducing the barrier to voting could result in fraud. But there's no evidence of that, and if Republicans don't get on board, they risk losing out on an opportunity to increase their own base -- something the Democrats are already benefiting from.
It would be nice if the success of automatic voter registration leads to a renewed discussion on the antiquated system of closed primaries. While 2016 has been a year of records, imagine the result if primary participation wasn't limited to people who are members of political parties. This year's bitterly contested primaries left many voters wishing they could have their voices heard during the primary process.
But anything that increases voter participation is a win in a democracy, and only good things can come from making it easier for eligible Americans to cast votes. Let's hope other states follow Oregon's lead, so that next time around American participation mirrors the rates in countries like the U.K. and Sweden.