In the face of foreign meddling in US elections, officials such as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden are urging a return to paper ballots.
For Oregon, that would be no big deal because of its vote-by-mail election system, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling wrote a recent op-ed for The Oregonian tracing the history of Oregon’s groundbreaking vote-by-mail system. Its genesis began when Linn County Clerk Del Riley asked a simple question: Why send every registered voter a sample paper ballot, then make them troop to a polling place on election day?
He answered his own question by saying it was cheaper and more voter-friendly just to send an actual ballot and let people fill it out over their kitchen table, then mail it in or drop it off. This kind of plainsong logic has been a mainstay of Oregon political innovation for a long time.
Like any disruptive idea, vote-by-mail faced political headwinds. Even though Riley was a Democrat, his party’s leaders worried that vote-by-mail would tend to favor Republicans who fare better in absentee balloting. Keisling admits his own initial skepticism led him to vote against vote-by-mail. Despite reservations, the 1981 Oregon legislature approved a 2-year trial.
In the first trial, appropriately in Linn County, Keisling said voter turnout reached 75 percent – in a special election.
Acceptance remained grudging, Keisling recalled. Only a few counties used vote-by-mail in 1985-86. The 1995 Oregon legislature approved a measure to allow vote-by-mail for any election, but Governor John Kitzhaber, at the urging of the Democratic National Committee, vetoed it.
“It took until 1998 with a push from a successful, all-volunteer ballot initiative effort to overwhelmingly enshrine the idea in Oregon law,” Keisling wrote.
Actual experience has shown vote-by-mail has increased voter participation. Keisling noted Oregon achieved a 71 percent voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election. The national average for turnout was 48 percent.
Keisling co-founded the National Vote at Home Institute that promotes vote-by-mail. Washington and Colorado have followed Oregon’s example and 27 out of 29 counties in Utah use it. There are experiments in Alaska, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota and California. Vote-by-mail continues to improve voter turnout in blue, red and purple states.
Even so, the biggest boost for vote-by-mail could be it is a paper ballot, hard to hack and easy to recount and audit. “Americans must move to paper ballots, marked by hand. Until that system is adopted, every election that goes by is an election that Russia could hack,” according to Wyden as he introduced the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act.
If voting machines are scrapped and replaced by paper, why not follow the wily intuition of Del Riley. Vote-by-mail is cheaper and encourages higher voter turnout.
Voting that is more secure, cheaper and convenient would seem to be irresistible – and inevitable. We’ll see. If vote-by-mail does prevail nationwide, Del Riley and Oregonians can take a victory lap.