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.
The records for this only go back as far as 1989. But in the nine-year period between then and 1998, there were at least six related cases that were prosecuted. Those cases originated in Curry, Columbia, Clackamas, Washington, Lane and Marion counties, and nearly all resulted in perpetrators being found guilty of such charges as false swearing and false voter registration.
During the 15 year period between 1998 and 2013, there were around 14 similar cases. A 2001 case involved an individual who registered and voted in Wasco and Hood River counties for at least three elections. Another case a year later involved a person in Marion County who submitted ballots for a sister who lived in Russia and another sibling who died in 2000. In 2003, a non-citizen pleaded guilty to voting by mail from Monmouth for several years.
A 2005 case originating from Josephine County involved a 14-year-old who filled out a voter registration card using his younger brother’s name. The following year, a man in Jefferson County pleaded guilty to registering in that county and neighboring Wasco County and voting in four different elections in both jurisdictions.
What is clear is that the capacity for electoral misdeeds has multiplied as a result of our vote-by-mail system. It is also potentially vulnerable to other forms of manipulation.
The system allows for a practice known as “ballot chasing.” Political operatives and others with a direct stake in the election results can obtain lists from their county clerk offices of persons who have already submitted their ballots. They are then able to marshal campaign resources to track down voters who have not turned their ballots in and urge them to do so. It is our understanding that Democrats use public employees to engage in this ballot chasing, using sick and personal leave days that are essentially paid for by taxpayers.
There is also the possibility of disenfranchisement of elderly voters. Their ballots are among those that are sent in the mail too late to be received in time to be counted. Even worse, the Secretary of State’s Office has no way of knowing how many of these ballots there are, as some counties put late ballots into the central voter registry and others don’t. Some that don’t enter them track them separately and others do not.
One of the common arguments used to advance vote-by-mail is that it increases participation. Prior to vote-by-mail, turnout in Oregon general elections peaked in 1960 at 86.51 percent. It remained high at around 84 percent for the 1964 and 1968 general elections and 82 percent in 1992. The 2000 general election, the first with vote-by-mail, boasted a turnout of fewer than 80 percent. That increased to 86 percent in 2004, dipped just below that figure four years later and was around 82 percent in 2012.
Historically, Oregon and Washington have both always had strong civic participation anyway. As such, one could say that those figures would have been high regardless of the particular voting methodologies utilized by either of those states.
Efforts to establish and maintain voter integrity are often inaccurately characterized as attempts to “disenfranchise” voters. I believe that the opposite is true.
In a representative democracy, every legitimate vote must count. Under those circumstances, votes that are not legitimate serve to cancel out those that are cast by legitimate means. It is critical that our system have safeguards in place to ensure that this does not happen, lest our entire way of life be compromised and our true electorate become disenfranchised. That, to me, is much more consistent with the Pioneer Spirit with which this state was founded.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls