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Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling says the coronavirus and public polling places are not compatible.

PMG PHOTO: BILL GALLAGHER - Sheila Hamilton, State Senator Mark Hass (r) and former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling on April 15.Most Oregon voters must be perplexed by the debate over whether voting by mail is a valid alternative to going to the polls in the time of the coronavirus. That seems like a no-brainer, they think.

Long lines of frustrated, socially-distanced voters outside the polls in Wisconsin on April 7 made the case graphically for mailing in or dropping off ballots. Ballots in Oregon are being mailed to voters on April 29 for the May 19 primary.

Oregon was the first state to start sending ballots to voter's homes, doing so for some special elections as early as 1980 and then for primaries and general elections beginning in 2000.

Twelve years later, Washington went with vote by mail. Since then, Colorado and Utah have done so, and Hawaii is about to get rid of polling places. In the 2018 general election, 25 percent of votes were mailed in — some from those five states and the rest from the 28 states that permit mail-in ballots upon request, or one of the 17 states which allow mailed ballots but require an excuse.

It's estimated that since the turn of the century, 100 million votes have been cast by mail in Oregon, and there have been a dozen cases of voter fraud. The system seems to work.

Phil Kiesling, Oregon's Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, spearheaded the vote-by-mail campaign in 1998. Voters approved Ballot Measure 60, which did away with polling places, with a yes vote of 70%. The first full vote-by-mail general election was in November 2000.

Kiesling endorsed State Senator Mark Hass in the upcoming Democratic primary for Oregon Secretary of State during an April 15 video presentation on Facebook. He took the opportunity to respond to critics like President Donald Trump, who claims vote by mail invites fraud. At a press conference on April 7, Trump said, "I think mail-in voting is horrible. It's corrupt." He took to Twitter the next day to claim it is, "RIPE for FRAUD."

"That's one of the biggest myths out there, that this is an open invitation to fraud," said Keisling. "We actually have safer elections and here's the big reason why: A paper ballot directly marked by a voter isn't just the gold standard, it's the platinum standard in a race that's so close you need a recount."

Keisling recently stepped down as the head of the Center for Public Service in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. He's chairman of the board for the National Vote at Home Coalition, an organization he founded in 2017.

"The other big myth that's out there is one I partly contributed to by calling it 'vote by mail' instead of 'vote at home.' In a system like Oregon's, voters get a ballot in the mail, but most do not vote by mail," he said.

"They take their completed ballots back in person, either to the election office, a voting center, or a ballot drop site. A mature vote at home system is one in which you have the option of how to return your ballot. It's not mandatory that you vote by mail," Kiesling said.

Critics claim that because voter turnout is higher with vote by mail, Democratic candidates benefit more than Republicans running for office. President Trump has said, "Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for the country. You'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

"What I tell Republicans who are worried about a higher voter turn out," Keisling said, "is that I'd rather live in a country where 80% of the people are voting and all my candidates lose than in a country in which 60% of people are voting, but all my candidates win."

The inevitable dispute over vote-by-mail in the coming months will be pretty partisan, even though there is no evidence that vote by mail favors Democrats.

"People have to stop thinking in partisan terms — especially with COVID-19. They have to start thinking about what is important for democracy.

Stay at home to protect your health and your community's health. Vote at home to protect democracy," Keisling said.

"Republicans and Democrats both know the system works, and quite honestly, if you tried to take it away from them, I think they'd run you out of town on a rail," he said.

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