Time to Clean Up Oregon’s Sloppy Voter Registration System

How can deceased persons remain on the active voter rolls in Oregon more than a decade after they have died? Election laws vary from state to state, and Oregon has no law to make these voters inactive. When Cascade Policy Institute compared the Social Security Master Death List to the state’s voter registration rolls, we found over 1,100 active voters whom the government has reported to be deceased.

As a matter of fact, there were dozens of names of voters who died before 2000. According to the death records, Richard Smith and Ruth Miller both died in 1981 and yet remain on the active Oregon Voter Registration List. A quick check by the county registrar in Umatilla County found that of the six people on our list from the small town of Milton-Freewater, one was still alive (an error by Social Security) and five were deceased (one having died in 1992). Yet, they were still listed as active voters. Ballots were mailed to those five names, but the ballots were not cast. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

In California, Washington and most states, if you do not vote in two consecutive federal elections, your voter registration becomes inactive. This is a simple rule, yet an effective one for keeping elections clean. Oregon has a different statute (ORS 247.013), which is as confusing as it reads:

“The registration of an elector shall be considered inactive if: (a) The county clerk has received evidence that there has been a change in the information required for registration under this chapter or the elector has neither voted nor updated the registration for a period of not less than five years; and (b) The county clerk has mailed the notice described in ORS 247.563.” However, ORS 247.013(7) states: “The registration of an elector shall not be moved to an inactive file during the 60-day period prior to any election because the elector has neither voted nor updated the registration for a period of not less than five years.”

Cascade does not know how this statute may be variously interpreted by different registrars in each county. Many names remaining active on the voter rolls may be due to confusion in the statute’s implementation.

Keep in mind that the Voter Registration List is the same list used by campaigns to solicit votes and by counties to find jurors. It would be incumbent upon the Secretary of State to make this list as up to date as possible. Political campaigns spend countless hours of wasted time and money chasing inaccurate listings. Each county is wasting postage and man-hours trying to contact people who are not there to fill their jury pool.

The solution to the state’s sloppy bookkeeping is simple. Look at how California’s voter registration law is worded:

“If a voter does not vote in two federal general elections in a row, the county elections official will attempt to contact the voter. If the voter fails to respond to the confirmation notice, the county elections official may place that voter’s record in an inactive file and he or she will not be mailed any official election material.”

Oregon should take a hard look at the methods being used to keep voter registrations current and accurate. There seems to be a disconnect between the Secretary of State’s Elections Division and individual counties. If new legislation is needed to ensure the accuracy of the Voter Registration List, the legislature should reconsider HR 3090, which addresses how ballots are handled, and add new registration guidelines to it. This bill was passed by the Oregon House of Representatives in 2005, but not by the Senate. Our new Secretary of State-elect, Kate Brown, should support revisiting this type of legislation to fix the voting registration problems left by her predecessor.

Jeff Alan is Chief Investigator at Cascade Policy Institute, a non-partisan free market research center based in Portland, Oregon.