Concerns with Oregon’s vote-by-mail

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Oregon and its people have long prided themselves on their Pioneer Spirit, a willingness to embrace new ideas long before other states decide to do so. And while I applaud that in part, it has also prompted a series of potentially problematic policies that continue to harm the state. Examples include our unique land-use system, which has stunted economic growth throughout rural Oregon for decades. Another example is our unique vote-by-mail system.

Vote-by-mail began with the overwhelming passage of Measure 60 in the 1998 general election. The measure passed with around 69 percent of the vote, and made Oregon the first state in the nation to do its elections exclusively by mail. Prior to that, the concept had been introduced incrementally.

Our history of vote-by-mail began as far back as 1981, when the Legislature approved it under certain conditions for local elections. The practice became widespread among the counties over the following six years.

In 1992, a task force on local government services determined that the state could save money by doing all of its elections in such a manner. Three years later, Oregon was the first state in the union to do a federal primary exclusively by mail.

Early supporters of the concept included groups like the League of Women Voters, the League of Conservation Voters and the Oregon Education Association.

The 2000 election saw Oregon become the first state to do a presidential election by mail. But despite this, it took over a decade for any other state to follow suit.

Washington’s Legislature passed a law in 2011 requiring all of its counties to do vote-by-mail. Local governments had the option of conducting their elections by mail since 1987, and the practice had been allowed for statewide elections since 1993. Colorado became the third state to adopt vote-by-mail in 2013.

All of this begs the question of why this practice hasn’t caught on in more states.

This document produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) asks that question, and identifies several issues surrounding vote-by-mail, as well as approaches other states have taken on this matter.

It states that legislators throughout the country introduced 42 bills in 2013-14 related to vote-by-mail. In that period of time, lawmakers in Alaska rejected a proposal to establish vote-by-mail for general elections, and their counterparts in Georgia failed to pass a resolution to study all-mail elections. The document also cites research that determined that “vote by mail in Oregon only affected turnout during special elections.”

Issues identified in the NCSL document include that of “leakage,” which is defined as the circumstances under which ballots are requested and not received, transmitted but not returned for counting or returned for counting but rejected. A lack of chain of custody procedures remains a specific security concern for researchers from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

One of the best sources for information on problems related to vote-by-mail comes from our own Secretary of State’s office. It maintains this log of prosecuted election law complaint cases related to voting.

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