Oregon has led the nation in vote-by-mail elections. Now as many as 70 percent of Americans who vote may cast their ballots before the election-day polls open November 6.
The Oregon legislature approved discretionary vote-by-mail elections at the local level in 1981, made them permanent in 1987 and extended them to federal elections in 1996, when Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was elected to succeed Senator Bob Packwood. In 2000, Oregon became the first state in the nation to conduct a presidential election entirely by mail, in which 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Polling shows vote-by-mail is popular with both Republicans and Democrats in Oregon, which may explain why both parties are actively encouraging early voting around the nation, as 32 states and the District of Columbia permit pre-election-day balloting.
The Obama and Romney presidential campaigns are operating on the belief that as many as 70 percent of those who cast a ballot will vote before November 6, which perhaps explains the early intensity of television, radio and social media advertising.
In a close presidential race, neither side wants to take any chances about getting its base voters to the polls — and before they have any reason to change their minds. Last week's presidential debate, which most observers believe was won by GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, is the kind of event campaigns use to motivate their voters to cast their ballots as soon as possible.
For voters, early voting can mean avoiding long lines and traffic congestion at a voting place on election day. Early voters can cast a ballot and drop it off or in the mail on their schedule, improving voter access for those with non-traditional work schedules, limited transportation options and mobility challenges.
In this election cycle, as several states have implemented — or tried to implement — voter ID laws, some citizens may want to vote early to make sure their vote will actually count.
There seems to be ample evidence more people vote when voting isn't condensed into a single day. Turnouts in Oregon have typically ranged higher than those in states that haven't allowed early voting in some form.
Some critics worry that early voting occurs before the final curtain calls of campaigns. In the past there has been a tradition of bombshell revelations or major events that break just before election day. However, permanent campaigns seem to be the rule these days, which makes some people so annoyed, they want to vote and be done with it. Many vote early because they do their homework, make up their minds and see no reason to wait.
Sentimentalists miss going to a polling station and pulling levers or poking holes in cards. But many reformists see mail-in voting as less susceptible to corruption and the kind of judgment call that became famous with the "hanging chad" in the hotly disputed 2000 Florida election. Of course, when voters sit around a table and talk about who or what to vote for, there is a chance an alpha personality can influence others. Oregon has a law in place to prevent someone from actually voting for another person, including spouses.
The availability of mail-in or other forms of early voting don't prevent citizens from keeping their powder dry until election day and dropping off their ballots before the deadline. Washington even allows ballots postmarked the day of the election.
The trajectory is that early voting appears here to stay. That inevitably will lead to new campaign techniques to reach voters earlier and in even more intrusive ways than now.