Ron Wyden

Vote-by-Mail Might Save the Day on Secure Elections

Oregon’s vote-by-mail got its start more than three decades ago because it saved money. Now vote-by-mail may grow in popularity nationwide because it is more secure. Oh yeah, it also boosts voter turnout.

Oregon’s vote-by-mail got its start more than three decades ago because it saved money. Now vote-by-mail may grow in popularity nationwide because it is more secure. Oh yeah, it also boosts voter turnout.

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.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling is often called the father of the state’s innovative vote-by-mail, but he says the idea originated with Linn County Clerk Del Riley and was initially championed by Secretary of State Norma Paulus.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling is often called the father of the state’s innovative vote-by-mail, but he says the idea originated with Linn County Clerk Del Riley and was initially championed by Secretary of State Norma Paulus.

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.

 

Few Seem Neutral on Polarized Net Neutrality Repeal

The nerdy issue of net neutrality has stirred up a national hornet’s nest as the Federal Communications Commission repeals an Obama-era rule that critics say guaranteed a free and open internet, but supporters claim would hold back internet innovation with government regulation. The issue has turned into yet another partisan fistfight.

The nerdy issue of net neutrality has stirred up a national hornet’s nest as the Federal Communications Commission repeals an Obama-era rule that critics say guaranteed a free and open internet, but supporters claim would hold back internet innovation with government regulation. The issue has turned into yet another partisan fistfight.

Mere minutes after the Federal Communications Commission on a split 3-2 vote ended net neutrality last week, Washington state’s attorney general filed suit to neutralize the FCC’s action on procedural grounds. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has an even more ambitious plan.

Inslee has come up with five options to force internet service providers in Washington to live up to net neutrality standards. Perhaps the most aggressive option is to empower Washington public utility districts to offer internet service and compete with big-league telecommunications companies.

Washington lawmakers – from both political parties – aren’t far behind. Bills have been introduced for the 2018 session that would forbid internet providers from throttling speeds or charging to prioritize traffic – two of the main concerns expressed by net neutrality supporters.

The FCC anticipated state-level resistance and added a preemption clause. That will be challenged, too. The main legal challenge will center on the FCC’s process, which included a public record featuring as many as 2 million bot-driven comments.

David Olson , who until 2012 oversaw cable and broadband development in Portland, played a notable role in what emerged as the concept of net neutrality.

David Olson, who until 2012 oversaw cable and broadband development in Portland, played a notable role in what emerged as the concept of net neutrality.

Oregon has joined with a number of other states in the legal challenge to FCC’s action and, given the state’s history on internet openness, may look at legislative options in 2018, too.

A sign of our digital times, the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality has stirred up greater national angst than the GOP-backed $1.5 trillion tax legislation or the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. However, net neutrality is no less politically polarizing. The FCC hearing room was cleared before the vote because of unruly protests.

Democratic opponents say repeal of net neutrality will signal the “end of the internet as we know it.” Republican supporters say the internet grew without a net neutrality rule, which was only adopted in 2015, and will continue to flourish after the rule is overturned. FCC Chairman Ajit Pat issued a video where he appears to mock critics. Comcast, one of the expected beneficiaries of net neutrality repeal, went to Twitter to say it wouldn’t violate net neutrality principles.

One of the leading defenders of net neutrality is Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. One of the best expositors of net neutrality repeal is Oregon GOP Congressman Greg Walden. Wyden says repeal is the equivalent of “trickle-down telecommunications.” Walden predicts innovation will continue to propel the internet and ensure competition.

Critics predict repeal of net neutrality will lead to paid prioritization of the internet and the resulting creation of a slow lane for those unwilling or unable to pay the freight for the fast lane. One critic has offered suggestions for how to measure potential speed throttling and access restrictions –  https://imgur.com/gallery/zfxwB

Critics predict repeal of net neutrality will lead to paid prioritization of the internet and the resulting creation of a slow lane for those unwilling or unable to pay the freight for the fast lane. One critic has offered suggestions for how to measure potential speed throttling and access restrictions – https://imgur.com/gallery/zfxwB

Democrats warn small businesses, educators, telemedicine and rural communities may find themselves on internet “slow lanes.” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly, a Republican, says fears expressed by critics are “guilt by imagination.” 

All this for a nerdy issue that a few years ago nobody ever had heard about, but which underscores how important the internet has become to virtually every aspect of business, education, medicine, research, communications and social interaction.

We certainly haven’t heard the last of net neutrality. Court challenges, a push to reverse the policy in Congress, state legislative action and debate on the political trail in the 2018 elections all loom.

 

As Trade Talks Loom, Blood Pressures May Zoom

Negotiations to reshape the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin in about a month. Priorities in negotiations for the Trump administration drew mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, including from a GOP leader who said changes in NAFTA can’t harm existing US business activity that depends on trade with Canada and Mexico.

Negotiations to reshape the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin in about a month. Priorities in negotiations for the Trump administration drew mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, including from a GOP leader who said changes in NAFTA can’t harm existing US business activity that depends on trade with Canada and Mexico.

Oregon exports and US industrial production are increasing, according to state economists, which could raise the stakes and blood pressure for Oregon businesses and workers as the Trump administration begins negotiations on NAFTA with Canada and Mexico in about a month.

Trump administration officials outlined their priorities for NAFTA negotiations, which drew mixed and nervous reviews on Capitol Hill and among trade groups. Trump objectives include improving market access for US manufacturing, agriculture and services, adding a “digital economy chapter” and adding labor and environmental obligations.

Administrative negotiators will seek to eliminate “unfair subsidies and market-distorting practices by state-owned enterprises” and improve intellectual property, says US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Texas Republican Kevin Brady, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said Trump’s objectives are “ambitious” in seeking “strong, enforceable rules that go beyond any agreement ever negotiated.” Brady also said an updated NAFTA agreement can’t remove trade benefits currently enjoyed by US businesses.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, made an underwhelming comment that he hopes Trump’s negotiating objectives will be “further developed” as negotiations proceed.

Democrats were less subdued. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, called the Trump priorities “hopelessly vague” in explaining how they will “benefit the United States on key topics ranging from intellectual property rights and investment, to currency manipulation and government procurement.”

Wyden also jabbed Trump’s team for including what he called “watered down versions of [Trans-Pacific Partnership] TPP proposals” that candidate Trump belittled in his presidential campaign and withdrew from when he became President.

“Before sitting down with Canada and Mexico,” Wyden said, “I expect the Administration to update this summary, shine some daylight on its negotiations and set the bar high for American workers, businesses and farmers, as it promised it would."

Michigan Democratic Congressman Sander Levin said Mexico’s low wages and a lack of workers’ rights have cost many US jobs, but he said Trump’s priorities don’t evince “that a new NAFTA will be different than the old [NAFTA].”

A number of economists said trying to negotiate a better deal based on a goal of reducing trade deficits is “misguided” and could backfire.

The complexity of trade considerations that go into negotiations was illustrated by South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg, who has transformed abandoned factories into a business park for technology companies in his Indiana city. In an interview today with CBS News, Buttigieg said unionized American autoworkers in his city are assembling German Mercedes Benz vehicles to sell to consumers in China.

In the May economic forecast, Oregon economists said changes to international trade agreements, not to mention a trade war, would have a larger impact on Oregon, which has an economy that depends on exports, than on many other states. Even though job growth in Oregon has cooled off, the state economy continues to expand and is already the third longest upswing since World War II.

Business Leaders Tackle Persistent Poverty

Oregon's poverty rate has continued to club even after the end of the last recession. Oregon business leaders will discuss how to meet their goal of reducing poverty sharply in the next six years.Oregon business leaders will gather a week from now and focus on a very untypical business topic — how to reduce Oregon's poverty level.

The Oregon Business Plan calls for reducing the level of poverty in the state from 17.2 percent to less than 10 percent by 2020. Sounds good, but how? And why do business leaders care?

The answer stretches over several subjects — ensuring a trained, available workforce, restoring economic prosperity to rural communities and making Oregon an appealing place for outside investors. After all, who wants to invest in a state that some call the Appalachia of the West?

Leadership summits often hover at the grasstops of problematic issues, but this year the Oregon Business planners are definitely getting into the thick weeds. After the obligatory morning sessions about success stories, the afternoon sessions dive into subjects such how to connect workforce training with actual careers, grow profitable minority and women-owned small businesses, finance public works that make communities ready for new development and tap the natural resources key to returning rural economic health.

A Happy Tale of Two Cities

It may seem strange to write about disparate developments in two Oregon communities in the same blog post, but what happened illustrates the solidarity of Oregon citizens when they face challenges.

In one case, hundreds of citizens, accompanied by a host of public officials, turned out in Vernonia this week to dedicate a new school building that replaces a former school ravaged by the disastrous floods of 2007 — which left many people homeless and resulted in a state and federal disaster declaration.  

The new school is a beautiful facility on higher ground that will help 600 Vernonia students from kindergarten through high school learn in a modern, quality environment. But it also is a tribute to the resilience of citizens who after the flood raised almost $50 million to finance, design and construct the new school. The last piece of the funding puzzle came in the waning hours of the 2011 legislature when Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders finally made good a session-long pledge to provide the last $3.9 million in bonding authority.

Citizens who ate the first meal in the cafeteria of a school that should last well into the 22nd century cheered as Reps. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, and Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, complimented them for pulling up their own bootstraps in the aftermath of the worst flood in the history in this small Columbia County community.

The phrase "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" reminded me of a time many years ago when, as deputy director of the Oregon Economic Development Department, I spoke to a graduate school class in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Leaders there wanted to hear about how Oregon had diversified its economy after the decline in its forest industry. They reasoned Oregon's experience could help them identify a strategy to diversify beyond making Michelin tires.

My French translator that evening had difficulty communicating the meaning of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." He ended up gesturing as he grabbed the seat of his pants and stood up.

That's what went through my head as I watched citizens in the small town of Vernonia celebrate their own success in lifting themselves up by the seat of their pants.