Vote-by-mail

Oregon Continues Bipartisan Tradition of Making Voting Easier

Under the shadow of high-profile legislation, Oregon continued its bipartisan tradition of expanding access to voting, including ballots with pre-paid postage.

Under the shadow of high-profile legislation, Oregon continued its bipartisan tradition of expanding access to voting, including ballots with pre-paid postage.

In the shadow of higher-profile legislation, the 2019 Oregon legislature continued the state’s bipartisan tradition of making it easier to vote.

While other states wrestle with election security and voter suppression, Oregon’s vote-by-mail is relatively immune from cyber-attacks and has routinely promoted higher voter turnout. 

Oregon lawmakers took vote-by-mail one step further by approving Senate Bill 861 that provides for pre-paid postage on ballots. The legislation was supported by the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, his successor Bev Clarno, Governor Brown and The Bus Project.

Pre-paid postage is viewed as another way to encourage voting, even though voters now can drop off ballots at local election offices. Some lawmakers questioned the cost of pre-paid ballots, which is estimated to run somewhere between $2-$3 million. Washington and California also have approved pre-paid ballots. 

Clarno carried forward Senate Bill 224, which was introduced at Richardson’s request, to address election issues by preventing voters from being purged from registration rolls because of inactivity and allowing military and overseas voters to request ballots electronically.

House Bill 2015 modified Oregon’s Motor Voter Act, which tied obtaining a driver’s license with automatic voter registration. Under state and federal law, proof of citizenship is required to register to vote. HB 2015 allows individuals without proof of citizenship to obtain a valid driver’s license without automatic voter registration.

The legislature did address one aspect of digital democracy by approving Senate Bill 761 that imposes strict requirements on the use of electronic signature sheets, known as e-sheets, for gathering signatures for initiatives or referenda. Under the measure, e-sheets must contain the full text of an initiative or referendum and require signatures in multiple places.

In her post-session newsletter, Clarno cited her objection to SB 761, which she said would make e-sheets harder to employ to the disadvantage of rural Oregon voters where hand collection of signatures can be prohibitively expensive. Clarno noted the validity rate of measures using e-sheets is higher than paper petitions.

Clarno, a Republican, is a former Central Oregon lawmaker and House Speaker. She ran unsuccessfully for Oregon Treasurer in 1996. She returned to elective office as a state senator in 2000, then resigned in 2003 to take a position with the George W. Bush administration in the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Brown appointed Clarno as secretary of state after Richardson’s death earlier this year. At the time, Brown indicated she wanted to appoint a successor who wouldn’t run for the office in 2020.

So far, there are no declared candidates from either party for secretary of state, though the names that often pops up is current House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, who came to the legislature in 2007 and has been speaker since the 2013 legislative session, and Representative Dan Rayfield, the Corvallis Democrat who is also Co-Chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Richardson was a Republican from Southern Oregon who served in the House and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014 against then incumbent John Kitzhaber. Richardson’s election in 2016 as secretary marked the first time Oregon elected a Republican to the post since Norma Paulus in 1980. He was the first Republican to win statewide office since 2002 when Gordon Smith was elected to the US Senate. Richardson died at age 69 from a rare form of brain cancer.

 

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.