In local government, political party affiliations are never as important as positive outcomes for the residents we serve. As the chair of Multnomah County and a registered Democrat, and as the mayor of one of Oregon's largest cities and a registered Republican, we emphatically agree that one of these positive outcomes — the exercise of our fundamental right to vote — transcends all other political concerns.
That's why we watched in horror as voters in Wisconsin who wanted to participate in the cornerstone of our democracy were recently forced to risk their health and safety in order to stand in lines for hours at polling stations, amid a public health crisis. The brave people throughout American history who risked their lives to extend and preserve the right to vote never intended for future generations to risk their own lives to exercise it.
Unfortunately, artificial and unnecessary obstacles to voting are not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many times in our nation's history — in too many places across our country — political motivations have upheld or increased barriers to voting. Diminishing or outright silencing the voices of the voters not only jeopardizes the validity of electoral outcomes, but fundamentally jeopardizes the legitimacy and viability of our representative democracy.
The strength of our American experiment in self-governance has always depended on the vigilant participation of voters. We are fortunate to live in a state where those voters, in 1998, had the foresight to implement the nation's first vote-by-mail system — a ballot measure that passed with nearly 70% voter approval.
The wisdom of that system is now time-tested and clear. In 2016, Oregon had an 80% turnout of registered voters, 8% higher than the national average. The benefit is even more obvious in midterm elections: in the 2018 Oregon midterm election, 67.8% of the state's registered voters voted, while the national average was 50.3%.
In addition to boosting turnout, in normal times our vote-by-mail system also affords voters a better opportunity to carefully work their way through the ballot, research candidates and issues, and make informed decisions. But with the COVID-19 public health emergency, we certainly aren't in normal times. If anything, Oregon's vote-by-mail system provides a civic infrastructure that is particularly resilient in the face of our current circumstances.
This year, voting from home also means voting safely. It means not having to make difficult decisions about which polling sites to keep open, or unnecessarily risking the safety of voters and election workers. And Oregon's already streamlined system will be even easier to access this year since the Oregon Legislature approved pre-paid return postage for Oregon ballots.
Thanks to Oregon's vote-by-mail system, Oregon's May 19 Primary Election will safely proceed as scheduled despite the challenges presented by COVID-19. And those appalling scenes we've seen elsewhere in the country won't have to play out here. But our election still depends on the robust participation of Oregon voters, so you'll want to keep a few key upcoming milestones in mind:
? Between April 22 and 24, Voters Pamphlets will hit mailboxes. This resource guide contains voting instructions, candidate statements, ballot measure arguments and a voter registration form for anyone not yet registered.
? For eligible voters who have not yet registered, the deadline for the May Primary Election is Tuesday, April 28. This is also the last day voters can update their registration or party affiliation. Registration cards are available at oregonvotes.gov/register.
? Ballots for military and overseas voters have already been mailed, and ballots for in-state voters will start arriving in mailboxes on Wednesday, April 29.
While COVID-19 continues to disrupt nearly every institution around the world, Oregon's election system will remain resilient, reliable and easy to access. Multnomah County will continue to provide a range of voter services, including registration, assistance for voters with disabilities, access to multilingual resources, replacement ballots and drop sites where people can directly deliver their ballots.
We're proud of Oregon's vote-by-mail system, which has proven to be as much of a landmark accomplishment as beach preservation and the bottle bill. Voter participation is always critically important to the health of our republic. In these unimaginable circumstances, we'll make sure you don't have to risk your health to exercise that right this May.
Deborah Kafoury serves as the chair of the Multnomah County Commission. Shane Bemis serves as mayor of Gresham.
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