Recently, the Guardian ran an article about Oregon’s successful effort to tighten its gun laws. It was interesting to learn about the state’s strategies and players–but the real lesson wasn’t about controlling access to guns.
It was about enabling democracy and facilitating–rather than suppressing–the vote.
In 2014 during Oregon’s midterm elections, the NRA poured cash into the coffers of pro-gun candidates, and a coalition of opponents poured money into the campaigns of anti-gun candidates. According to Everytown, which is backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, it alone funneled $600,000 into the state. The NRA made phone calls, sent mail, urged its members to contact their legislators. In the meantime Everytown bought ads on television and online.
That’s when the effort in Oregon reached its third step. “If you ask people about ‘gun control’, they might say they don’t like it. But if you ask people about specifics, like assault rifles or background checks, they’re overwhelmingly for it. People want change,” Okamoto said. “So we put the vote in their hands.”
It’s simple to vote in Oregon, which holds all elections by mail. When residents apply for drivers’ licenses they are automatically registered to vote, and about three weeks before an election they receive a ballot in the mail. They fill it out at home and send it back. “It’s so easy,” Okamoto said.
For years, pundits and politicians alike have bemoaned the reality that the NRA can–and does–prevent legislators from responding to the huge majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) who favor stricter controls over gun purchases. But they’ve never connected the dots.
If we want policies that reflect public sentiment, we have to allow the public to express that sentiment at the ballot box.
In a constitutional democracy, there are certainly things we don’t vote on. We are not a pure democracy, and “majoritarianism” is–and should be–tempered by the protections of the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law.
But in those areas where legislation should reflect the public will, we should be facilitating the expression of that public will–not suppressing it.
Oregon’s vote by mail system and other measures making voting easier rather than more difficult deserves to be emulated elsewhere.