Going Postal

The first time you hear about Oregon's approach to voting, the idea sounds almost un-American. In 1998, the state that gave us assisted suicide decided to run all of its elections by mail: no voting booths, no frantic Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts,
no dueling poll-watchers -- and no trooping off to the local firehouse to mingle with neighbors, take one last look at leaflets, and cast your ballot.

Why would anyone want to move to such a system? Doesn't it kill one of the few remaining civic rituals that bind us together as a people? Doesn't it spoil the idea of a defined campaign period that ends with everyone casting a ballot on a single day? The full story is told in this special report.

But the more deeply you explore the Oregon system, the better it looks. It costs less than half the traditional polling-place system, and has turnout 10.5 percentage points above the U.S. average. At least two weeks before Election Day, every registered Oregon voter gets a ballot courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service. The voter can take the full period, or less, to come to a decision. Then the voter places the ballot into a special envelope and mails it off to one of 36 county tabulation centers. The ballots must be signed and the signature must match the one on the registration card, so that theft and fraud are essentially nonexistent.

The system invites a better-informed electorate. It signals to voters that they can take more than two weeks to study the issues, discuss them at the kitchen table, and think hard about how to vote. Nobody has to leave work, find baby sitters, or brave bad weather or long lines at the polls on Election Day. Traditionalists (or those too cheap to buy a stamp) can still walk their ballot to counting headquarters.

Despite the loss of a secret voting booth in favor of the kitchen table, there are no reports of anyone abusing Oregon's more open process to buy votes. The vote count is vastly simplified since it takes place at the county level, rather than precinct by precinct. The risk of counting inaccuracy or chicanery is minimized. There is no worry of machines breaking down, being in short supply, or hacked; no long lines; no partisan wrangling at polling places; and far less incentive for last-minute smears. And, at a time of electronic horrors, vote by mail is the ultimate paper trail.

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This radical innovation crept up on Oregon. Its ancestor was the conventional absentee ballot. States generally make arrangements for people with special needs to vote remotely. The new wrinkle is “no-excuse” absentee voting, where a voter can vote by mail for any reason at all. In 1981, the Oregon legislature authorized a general test of vote by mail for local elections.

By 1993, Oregon had conducted a statewide special election by mail, and the state found itself with an oddly split system, one part traditional Election Day voting at polling places and one part early vote by mail. It was at that point that Phil Keisling, then secretary of state, became a missionary for conducting all elections by mail as a good idea per se. Voters adopted the statewide system by referendum in 1998.

Each party worried that the idea advantaged the other. Though Keisling was a Democrat, the Democratic political establishment initially resisted. Didn't only Republican blue-haired ladies who voted absentee? Didn't Republicans have superior machinery to mobilize at-home voters?

But it didn't turn out that way. If anything, vote by mail has slightly helped Democrats. Lower-income people often have lower motivation and face higher barriers to get to the polling place; vote by mail eliminates the barriers. Most close students have concluded that the system is basically a wash in partisan terms. But it is extremely popular with voters generally. No current statewide Oregon politician dares oppose it.

Universal vote by mail has been good for turnout, honesty, and confidence in the system. Its proponents, who are eager to take it nationwide, insist there is nothing unique about Oregon's clean civic tradition or maverick role. Its opponents warn of the lost civic ritual and potential for fraud. But compared to what? Though vote by mail came to Oregon before the nightmare of the 2000 election, it looks better and better as the federal Help America Vote Act and electronic voting disasters create more problems than they solve.

The idea is beginning to catch on in counties across the country, most notably in California, where the movement to vote by mail seems irresistible. Jefferson would smile at the idea of 18th-century technology redeeming an 18th-century ideal, and getting us out of a 21st-century morass.

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