No turning back in the state that pioneered voting by mail
SALEM — Running an election by mail is a major undertaking, involving the U.S. Postal Service, armies of volunteers and even librarians.
But for election officials and voters in Oregon — which pioneered all vote-by-mail in the nation 20 years ago — there’s no turning back to the old way of having people cast ballots at neighborhood polling places.
They cite its convenience and security. Democrats and Republicans alike dismiss President Donald Trump’s attacks on vote-by-mail as a vehicle for fraud.
“He’s afraid to count the votes of the people,” said Bill Bradbury, a Democrat who was secretary of state during Oregon’s first all vote-by-mail election.
Since Oregon took the plunge, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington state have followed. Other states are edging toward it, at least this year, amid concerns that forcing voters to polling places will reduce turnout and expose them to the coronavirus.
Bruce Hipple, who owns a shoe store in Salem, said he doesn’t miss voting at a precinct and thinks the system is working fine. He noted that people have the convenience of using the mail or drop boxes and don’t need to congregate at polling places, a potentially dangerous proposition during the virus outbreak.
“I wish the rest of the country would do it the same,” he said.
State Elections Director Steve Trout said officials from around 30 states have asked him for advice about expanding mail-in voting. He says it’s important to establish a relationship with the U.S. Postal Service.
Trump’s attempts to deprive the Postal Service of more money to make it harder to process mail-in ballots has created uneasiness in Oregon, although election managers say postal officials have reassured them.
Postal workers expedite millions of ballots to voters and then bring completed ones to county election offices, where they are tracked using bar codes. On Election Day, local election officers have even gone to post offices to help watch for late-arriving ballots.
“Fortunately, Oregon has over two decades of experience working with our local partners at USPS and has an excellent working relationship with them to ensure ongoing support for our elections,” said Secretary of State Bev Clarno, the state’s highest-ranking Republican.
The state has numerous safeguards to prevent fraud.
Each signed ballot is examined by workers at county election offices to ensure that voter signatures match the digital versions on file. Each ballot return envelope contains a unique bar code that cannot be duplicated to make sure voters can return just one ballot, Clarno said.
Her spokeswoman, Laura Fosmire, cited statistics indicating that fraud is negligible. After the 2016 general election, 54 cases were referred to law enforcement for possible prosecution. In fewer than half those cases, 22, people were found guilty of voting in two states. That accounted for far less than 1% of ballots cast.
Still, the president’s attacks on mail-in voting — a practice he also uses — have some people wondering if the process could be made even more secure.
Shelby Babcock, 26, lives in the tiny town of Hines in sparsely populated Eastern Oregon, a Republican bastion in the Democratic-leaning state. She likes voting by mail because it means she doesn’t have to take time off from her job as a cook to stand in line at a polling station and just has to walk five minutes from her home to the post office.
She thinks having a fingerprint verification might tighten security of the ballots even more.
“I have to put my thumbprint every time I have to cash my check at the bank,” Babcock said. “They’re doing that for money, so why aren’t they doing that for votes?”
Babcock voted for Trump in 2016 but is undecided this year.
Vote-by-mail existed for several years in Oregon for special and local elections before voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in 1998 to expand the system to primaries and general elections.
Once they receive their ballots and fill them out, voters have the option of returning them by mail (the postage is pre-paid beginning this year), dropping them at official ballot drop boxes or returning them to their county elections office.
Before this year, an average of only 35% of ballots were returned by mail, with the rest deposited in drop boxes or taken straight to election offices. In Multnomah County, drop boxes are placed next to a McDonald’s drive-thru, at a plumbing supply store, other businesses and at libraries.
When the pandemic forced the county’s 19 libraries to close during the state’s primary, librarians and election officials allowed voters to return ballots through the outdoor slots where people return books. Deputized librarians then separate the ballots from the books.
“That’s one of those innovations that came about because of the pandemic, but we’re keeping it because it was such a big boost for access to voters,” said Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott.
Election officials here believe other states can do similar pivots so they can offer voting by mail — noting that all states already have absentee voting in some form.
“Yes, they can do it, because we’ve already paved the way to do it,” said Bill Burgess, the chief elections official for the county that includes Salem, the state capital. “Is it going to take more time and resources to gear up to it? Yes.”