Sign on a desk in House chamber
A sign on a desk in the House Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol. (File photo by Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Registering to vote would be easier for Oregonians without driver’s licenses under a proposal that won support from Democrats in the state House on Wednesday.

Oregonians can now register to vote online if they have a driver’s license, learner’s permit or other state ID card. Otherwise, they must use paper forms and can provide the last four digits of their Social Security number or copies of documents with their names and addresses, such as a bank statement.

House Bill 4133, which passed the state House on a partisan vote, with 33 Democrats in favor and 23 Republicans voting against, will allow residents to register online using the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. Proponents, including state Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, described it as a simple step to modernize the state’s election system and save money while doing so.

“The bill just gives them a new way of providing the same information and signature online, rather than by a paper form,” Fahey said. “This subset of voters would provide the exact same information, just entered on a screen rather than on a piece of paper.” 

Legislative fiscal staff estimated that the proposal would cost just over $460,000, including hiring one temporary employee and one permanent employee. In contrast, said Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, it cost county election officials about $900,000 to process 200,000 paper forms leading up to the 2020 election. 

Relying on paper forms means messy handwriting or data entry errors could prevent an eligible voter from exercising their right to vote, Pham said. 

Slightly fewer than 84,000 of the state’s 2.95 million voters registered to vote with the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, while another roughly 18,000 registered with documents other than a state ID or Social Security number, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.

The measure also would allow approved third-party organizations to submit online voter registration forms, essentially enabling a virtual version of in-person voter registration drives.

While the proposal amounts to a simple update, it served as a proxy for a larger partisan debate about election integrity and faith in the electoral process. House Republicans and more than 100 Oregonians who sent letters to lawmakers about the proposal objected to it, citing concerns about potential voter fraud. 

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said the proposal looked good on paper, but she didn’t trust the motives of the Democrats who introduced it and supported it. 

“There’s so much suspicion and so much mistrust that even something like this that should be a simple modernization isn’t trusted,” Wallan said. “I’m sorry we don’t trust you. I wish we did. I wish I could vote for this.” 

Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, said her rural district has a high number of undocumented immigrants who have obtained Social Security numbers despite not being U.S. citizens. 

“House Bill 4133 does not build trust in election integrity, but instead gives my constituents more cause for distrust,” she said. 

People registering to vote in Oregon must assert that they’re U.S. citizens and Oregon residents, and they’re warned that lying on a voter registration form could be punished by up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine. Nationally, prosecutors have found isolated cases of non-citizens registering to vote or participating in elections.

Claiming concerns about non-citizens voting is just an example of fear-mongering, said Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale. 

“The evidence that has been found time and time again shows that the kind of fraud that is being alluded to here is a specter,” he said. “It is a scarecrow.” 

Oregonians who aren’t already registered to vote are automatically registered as nonaffiliated voters when they obtain or renew their driver’s license, learner’s permit or non-operating identification card. They then receive a card in the mail with the option to choose a party or opt out of voting.

The state Motor Vehicles Department reports that 3.1 million people have active Oregon driver’s licenses.

The most recent figures compiled by state demographers at Portland State University show that slightly more than 3.4 million adults live in Oregon. That includes people barred from voting because they’re not U.S. citizens or are currently incarcerated for felonies.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.