Oregon avoiding vote-by-mail scramble
This week, primary ballots are going out in the mail to nearly 3 million Oregonians — but not because of any emergency measure to protect residents from the coronavirus.
In fact, unlike other states that have had to delay primaries, scramble for alternatives or cancel them altogether, mailing the ballots is evidence that Oregon's primary election is moving along on schedule.
Our state will thankfully avoid the chaos created by the Wisconsin Legislature's insistence that voters show up to polling places last month, which forced people to stand in line for hours and risk their lives just to be heard. (At least 52 coronavirus cases have been linked to that shameful spectacle.)
For Oregonians, though, voting by mail isn't a new fad or a backup plan. Rather, it's how we've voted for nearly a quarter century. I should know: I was the first senator elected in an all-mail election, back in 1996. Gordon Smith, a Republican from Eastern Oregon, was the second later that year. Two years later, 70% of the state voted to permanently change all of our elections to vote-by-mail, and we've never looked back.
Now, because of the pandemic, there is a sudden rush by pundits and politicians to weigh in on voting by mail. The New York Times even declared it "the hot new idea" last month.
It seems that everyone voting by mail suddenly makes sense to people outside Oregon after 25 years. After all, if Americans fear going to the polls or working at them because of the risks of COVID-19, voting by mail offers a way for people to cast ballots while maintaining social distancing.
So, for my friends around the United States interested in our system, here's how it works. After receiving the ballots that go out around three weeks before a primary or general election day, most voters fill them out and mail them back — or drop them off at collection boxes posted at places like the county elections office or a local library.
Personally, I sit at my dining room table in southeast Portland the weekend before Election Day, with both my ballot and voter's guide next to me. If there's a race or initiative I need to double-check, I can do some quick research before marking my ballot. When I'm done, I put it in an envelope and sign the outside.
Then I drive to the Sellwood Public Library, drop my ballot in the collection box and go home. It's all over in about a half-hour. I can later check Oregonvotes.gov, which will tell me whether my ballot has gotten to the elections office. It's incredibly easy.
Since our state went to vote by mail, I have never seen people waiting in lines extending for blocks just to vote. No one must miss a shift at work or find extra childcare just to vote. Seniors don't need to risk their health just so they can vote.
It's no surprise, then, that Oregon ranks near the top of the country in voter turnout. Nearly 70% of eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections. And 63% voted in the 2018 midterms. And it's far cheaper than conventional voting: Counties that vote at home cut their election costs by nearly 40%. Oregon taxpayers saved $600,000 in the first all-mail election alone.
President Donald Trump, who has regularly voted using mailed-in absentee ballots, has claimed that voting by mail is too susceptible to fraud to be allowed. That's a flat-out lie: Oregon aggressively hunts for any election irregularities, and it has never found anything resembling the fantasy scenarios conjured up by Trump and others on the far right.
Oregon Republicans agree. Our former secretary of state, the late — and very conservative — Dennis Richardson wrote to Trump in 2017 that "we are confident that voter fraud in last November's election did not occur in Oregon." Our current Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno said, "We've proven that our system is very secure and voters love it."
And, by the way, nearly a million members of our armed forces vote by mail all the time. They've been doing it for decades.
I know voting by mail works — which is why I wrote a bill with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to make sure that every American has the right to vote the way we do in Oregon. Our bill doesn't require all-mail elections, of course: If states want to have in-person voting, they can do that, too. The legislation would additionally require that states provide residents with 20 days of early voting, and it has clear rules to make sure that people's ballots don't get thrown out by mistake.
Time is running out to prepare for November's election, and if Congress doesn't act in a matter of weeks, I'm afraid many state and local governments won't be ready if, as scientists suggest they will, COVID-19 cases spike in the fall. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., must drop their partisan roadblocks and give states the guidance and resources they need to help all Americans exercise their constitutional rights as soon as possible.
Oregon has shown voting by mail works — no matter your political preferences. It can work for the rest of America, too.
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