Why you should care
Because they’re figuring out how to get the future to the polls.
There are reports of increased grassroots energy across the nation after last year’s presidential election. But long before the vote was cast in the Beaver State, energy already was up, with hundreds of volunteers reaching thousands with a simple message: Registered voters need to show up at the polls.
And it seems the message got through:
Turnout among Oregon voters ages 18 to 29 soared from 37 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2016.
The volunteering strategy was simple but highly effective. Before the election, dozens of volunteers — high schoolers, college-age fellows and “the young at heart,” as organizers call them — piled into school buses as if they were going to summer camp. Instead of spending their vacations on a lake, however, they were off to rural Oregon to knock on doors and encourage folks to register to vote with meme-friendly slogans like “I’m on the bus.” (For those not in the know, Google “I’m on a boat.”) It was part of a larger onslaught on residents and legislators to encourage voter access-friendly laws, from direct lobbying to spreading awareness at music festivals.
Drumming up civic engagement from teenagers is no easy task. And lest you think such efforts have little impact on legislation, consider that the Bus Project led an automatic voter registration bill that passed in March 2015. Last year the statute automatically registered more than 225,000 residents who interacted with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The first-in-the-nation law was followed soon after by similar legislation that passed in California, West Virginia and Vermont. One of the major results was that, while millennial turnout was notably smaller nationally than in 2008 and 2012 — in part contributing to Hillary Clinton’s loss in November — youth participation was dramatically higher here.
Other states have taken notice, with the Bus Project organizing sister branches across the U.S., from Montana and Colorado to Texas and Florida. In May, its affiliate in Illinois campaigned for an automatic registration bill that passed unanimously in the Illinois House of Representatives. And folks in Maryland have reached out to try to emulate its success, says Nikki Fisher, the Oregon nonprofit’s executive director. In Oregon, applications it started taking in January tripled compared to past seasons.
Of course, a bunch of buses aren’t solely responsible for Oregon’s high voter-turnout rates. The attention-grabbing presence of Donald Trump could have contributed to that spike (although if that were the case, national turnout would likely have been up too). Historically, the state has led on such legislation. It was one of the first to offer a statewide vote-by-mail option (1998), online voter registration (2009) and tablets for disabled voters (2011). Those efforts have made Oregon one of the top voting states, sixth nationally with nearly 70 percent participation in last year’s general election.
Still, the Bus Project does have a head start — and continues to push Oregon forward. Up next? Another trailblazing proposal to preregister 16-year-olds when they get their first driver’s license, which would make them automatically eligible to vote when they reach the age of majority. As Fisher puts it: “We have a pioneering spirit.”
Rudyard Kipling once described its residents as living “on salmon and great and increasing expectations.”
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