Kitchen-Table Democracy

Here's what Election Day will look like in Oregon this fall. Most of the voting will not take place on Election Day at all but probably sometime in October. It's after dinner and the family gathers around the kitchen table to vote. Mom and dad, maybe with children old enough to be interested, get out the Voters' Pamphlet and a few newspaper articles and mark their ballots.

The discussion starts. What do you think of this candidate? What about that measure? Item by item, ballots are marked and then either mailed or set aside half-finished to allow a little more time to think. This is democracy at the kitchen table, not the polling place.

Joining the neighbors in the polling place, that beloved public statement of civic virtue, is gone. But while Oregon lost this Norman Rockwell imagery, it has adopted new civic rituals of its own. And nothing is more iconic to the Oregon vote-by-mail experience than the family gathered around the kitchen table to hash out the issues.

No criticism of vote by mail resonates as powerfully as the loss of the traditional rituals. “I don't like it,” said Doug Gentner, a former hotel owner from Portland. “The physical act of going to the precinct, picking up the ballot and signing in made me feel like I was participating. I know it's just as much a ballot and just as much a vote but it just doesn't feel the same.”

There are other consequences. If you vote nearly three weeks before Election Day, you can't change your mind if, say, something bad comes out about a candidate a few days later. And receiving your ballot in the mail along with all the other junk that arrives may seem to cheapen what should be a dignified process.

But others like the convenience and the opportunity for discourse. “Our lives are pretty crazy,” said Rob Stuart, owner of R. Stuart & Co. winery in McMinnville, about 40 miles southwest of Portland in the Yamhill County wine country. “I get up at 6:30 and don't get to work until 9, with the dealing with the kids. I race to get everything done by the end of the day and, shazam, it's 8 o'clock. I usually vote at 9 or 10 at night when all the clutter in my head has gone and I can focus on it.”

“I don't miss going to the polls at all,” said Maria Stuart, co-owner of the winery. “I find voting by mail to be the most convenient way to vote. And I appreciate the time to do the research with the ballot in front of me, and do my homework when there are issues I‘m not familiar with.”

Voters, of course, can talk about issues with family and friends without having a ballot in front of them.

Jason Wells, a mortgage loan specialist with Standard Insurance in Portland, got used to voting by mail while in the Army during Operation Desert Storm. “I definitely spend a lot more time on the secondary races, the county dog catcher races,” he said. “I'll sit and read the Voters' Pamphlet while I'm looking at my ballot.”

His wife, Maggie Wells, an attorney, has only voted in a polling place once, in 1988, her first election. She has voted by absentee or by mail every election since and prefers mailing in her vote.

“We're living busier lives,” Maria Stuart said, “and this allows you to do your civic duty without taking more time away from your family.”

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Broad Approval

Oregonians' support for voting by mail over the polling booth:

Democrat 85%

Independent 81%

Republican 77%

Working 79%

Unemployed 71%

Homemaker 93%

White 82%

Nonwhite 79%

High School 85%

College 80%

Advanced Degree 76%

Overall 81%

-- Source: Survey of registered voters by Professor Priscilla Southwell, University of Oregon, 2003

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Voting in Oregon: A Roadmap

Step 1: The voter fills out a registration card with name, address, and signature, which is then entered by the local election office into a database …

Step 2: Vote-by-mail packets -- with ballot, return envelope with unique barcode, and “secrecy envelope” -- are mailed to all eligible voters about 20 days before Election Day …

Step 3: Voter completes ballot and returns it by mail, takes it to designated drop site, or delivers it directly to the county election office …

Step 4: County election office verifies accuracy of information on secrecy envelope, and sorts by precinct. All outer envelopes are kept sealed, until …

Step 5: No sooner than seven days before Election Day, inspection teams begin removing ballots from their secrecy envelopes …

Step 6: On Election Day, ballots are tallied by machine.

-- Sources: Oregon Secretary of State; the Early Voting Information Center