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House votes for early voter registration at 16

The Oregon House of Representatives voted Tuesday in favor of allowing 16-year-olds to register to vote when they obtain a driver’s license.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, voted against House Bill 2988 out of concern that the information of underage teens will not be protected. He said an amendment offered by Republicans, who are the minority party, to keep the addresses and other personal data of minors out of the public eye were defeated. He said GOP leaders also wanted the teen to not declare a political party affiliation in order to protect them from data collection by campaigns and possible harassment.

“I think if we’re going to sign up 16-year-olds to vote, one of the most critical things is to make sure their private information is protected,” he said. “I think this is a child safety issue; even though these are high school kids, they are still under the guardianship of adults and I just don’t think this is a good idea.”

Wasco County Clerk Linda Brown said federal law prohibits anyone from voting before the age of 18 so 16-year-olds will only pre-register if HB 2988 becomes law, like their peers who are 17 and can already do so. She said anyone who signs up will have residency information entered into a database and be sent a ballot for the first election following his or her 18th birthday.

Currently, 45 teens in Wasco County have registered at 17 and 18 of them will be eligible to vote in the May 21 election, she said. Anyone who wants to know what political party a voter is affiliated with, as well as that individual’s name and address, can access that information upon request.

“I’m not sure how this new law would be constructed before it becomes final but we do have the ability to mask all information but a person’s name,” said Brown.

Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, joined all 34 Democrats in supporting the measure, which was approved by a 35-25 vote.

Huffman said Democrats who control all levels of Oregon’s government appear to be largely in favor of the proposal, so it is likely to become law. He is hopeful that changes will be made as the measure is considered by the Senate to protect younger citizens.

“This bill will greatly enhance our ability to engage the young people who we so desperately need in our democracy,” said Rep. Ben Unger, D-Hillsboro, in a media statement following the March 26 vote in the House.

He said it is a natural process for teens to register to vote at the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services office, and one that might get them more interested in the political process. He said the state doesn’t get another opportunity to reach those potential voters at the agency until their license expires when they turn 24.

Huffman said some opponents of HB 2988 claim Democrats initiated the proposal to add to their own voter base because young people trend toward more liberal thinking. He said having teens more politically active should not matter if the GOP is doing its job of explaining the benefits of limited government and personal freedoms.

“I am not worried about the possible agenda behind this bill,” he said. “Republicans just need to figure out a way to make a strong argument with voters.”

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