Gov. Kate Brown talks about Oregon's voting policies, such as automatic voter registration, at a Center for American Progress panel in Washington D.C. in February. (Photo courtesy of Chris Williams for the Center for American Progress)

In her final four years as governor, Kate Brown is working to become a national leader of voter access.

In February, Brown traveled to Washington D.C. to present on Oregon’s innovative changes to voter access to Center for American Progress.

In an interview with Salem Reporter, Brown explained voter access has been a priority since she ran for secretary of state more than a decade ago. Brown led the push for Oregon’s “motor voter” law, which automatically registers Oregonians to vote through Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles data. Brown signed that policy into law as governor.

In less than two years, 390,000 additional Oregonians were registered to vote that way. That added to Oregon’s existing vote-by-mail policy. A 2018 report by Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University and Wuhan University in China ranked Oregon first in the nation in ease of voting.

“There’s just an incredibly opportune moment right now with the conversations that are taking place across the country, with the 2020 election cycle upcoming, to really highlight the groundbreaking work that Oregon has done,” Brown said after her trip.

Brown was already traveling to the nation’s capital and was invited to participate in a panel on voter access. She said Oregon’s efforts are crucial in a time where voter access is under attack, Brown said.

“I am appalled with some of the state restrictions,” Brown said, adding that some of the tactics are meant to stop black people from voting.

Brown said now that she doesn’t have an election season looming for the first time in her political career, she does have more time to advocate across the country for the Oregon way of handling elections. But more than that, she said, current politics have given Americans a hunger for policy that increases voter access.

Brown pointed to “wake up” calls like Russian hacking in the 2016 election, potential election fraud in North Carolina now being investigated by federal prosecutors, and the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s another opportunity for Oregon to highlight a best practice like vote at home,” Brown said.

The work has raised Brown’s profile, said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. The association’s website has three governors’ faces emblazoned on its homepage. One is Brown, who Turner said is a national expert at this point.

“I think she’s obviously someone who has a proven record, particularly on voting rights,” he said.

Turner said it’s common for governors to take to the national stage to push an issue that’s central to their political work. He said she’s been effective in using her “bully pulpit” on the issue.

Brown has also been busy pushing voting reform at home. Brown would like the state to pay postage on mail-in ballots, removing another barrier from voting. She testified on Senate Bill 861 on Monday.

The bill has some support, but the funding is not guaranteed. At Oregon’s current voter participation rate, the postage would cost about $750,000 per year.

Voting isn’t the only Oregon issue for which Brown is serving as an ambassador. She has and intends to continue advocating nationally for women’s health issues.

Last week, Oregon took the lead in suing the Trump Administration over its “Title X gag rule” which would prevent medical clinics receiving federal funds from discussing abortions with patients.

The federal law provides funding for reproductive health services for low-income Americans. Under the new rule, clinics wanting to receive the funds would have to literally partition off abortion services.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum took the lead in the lawsuit, joined by 20 other states, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene.

Brown, who has supported Rosenblum’s fights against the Trump Administration, said she was involved in the decision to sue.

“I think it was critically important that Oregon lead the charge and continue to be the beacon of hope for states across the country, and frankly be one of the states that pushes back hard on the unconstitutional actions of the Trump Administration,” Brown said.

Brown said going forward, she will be selective on what she pushes to the rest of the country. She will continue to endorse issues she feels are best practices, but she’ll also be cognizant of interest. She said she has talked on a national level about voting access for years, but no one cared until it was proven the voting system was under attack. She plans to use that, and the upcoming presidential election, to vault the “Oregon way.”

“Right now, we’ve got a perfect storm with what’s happening around voting and the 2020 elections,” Brown said. “I just think the opportunity is ripe and we are going to take advantage of this nationally.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1251. 

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