Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

During the 2004 election, a whopping 86.48 percent of registered voters and an impressive 71.24 percent of the voting age population in Oregon turned in their ballots -- impressive figures for a state without same-day voter registration. The key to Oregon's success in getting voters to actually vote is fairly simple: mailing voters ballots and giving every one of them three weeks to turn it in.

Already, Oregon's system has a big backer on the federal level in the state's senior Senator, Democrat Ron Wyden. But now, The Oregonian's Jeff Kosseff reports that John Kerry has jumped aboard the vote-by-mail bandwagon.

"It works brilliantly, as a matter of fact," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "People have a lot of time to be able to vote. They don't have to struggle with work issues, being sick, other kinds of things. And they have plenty of time to have the kind of transparency and accountability that really makes this system work."

As Kosseff notes, not only does Oregon's vote-by-mail system afford voters with a much easier opportunity to vote, it also costs significantly less than traditional polling systems, with some estimates pegged at 30 percent savings. What's more -- and perhaps more importantly -- a vote-by-mail system "creates a paper trail for every vote."

I'm don't believe that Oregon's system is a panacea for all of the nation's elections woes, nor do I intend to argue that Oregon's system is the right answer for every state and locality around the country. Nevertheless, the system has worked wonders here in the Beaver State, so I'm glad to see that a heavy hitter like John Kerry is willing to offer words of support of voting-by-mail. And if other areas of the country begin to adopt the system -- then all the better for our democracy.

Tags: John Kerry, Ron Wyden, Vote-by-Mail (all tags)



Impressive turnout numbers

I do have some questions, though:

-What method, if any, is used to 'purge' the registered voters list?  
-What safeguards are in place to be sure ballots get counted?  
-Do voters have to pay postage?  
-How many "spoiled" or otherwise uncounted ballots are there?
-Does the GOP try to challenge any voters there?

by Bear83 2006-07-21 11:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Impressive turnout numbers

What method, if any, is used to 'purge' the registered voters list?

- I'm not sure. I do know that this method leads to a lot of "self-purging" since lack of a current address will lead to your ballot being returned.

What safeguards are in place to be sure ballots get counted?

- All steps of the process are open to observation by the public including: preparation for mailing (about one month before the election), ballot reception and signature verification (during the two weeks before the election), opening envelopes and preparing ballots to be counted (usually starts 5 days before the election date), counting ballots (election day).

Do voters have to pay postage?

- If they are to be returned by mail, yes (standard 1st class postage is sufficient). However, drop boxes are also available in many locations around the state.

How many "spoiled" or otherwise uncounted ballots are there?

- I couldn't find that on the Sec State info pages. I'm sure there are some. The entire state now uses optical scan ballots which are fairly straightforward when compared to other methods, but nothing's really idiot-proof. It's my understanding that it's lower than average.

Does the GOP try to challenge any voters there?

- Not to my knowledge, though there was a sketchy outfit that got in trouble for running a registration drive then throwing out the Dems.

[All info from the Oregon Secretary of State]

by nate pdx 2006-07-21 02:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

I live in WA state and I vote everything by mail.  And yes I have to provide postage.

by Tinuviel 2006-07-21 11:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

The hounds at Fox will trumpet this as more sour grapes from Kerry over his failed White House bid.

by liberal elite 2006-07-21 11:51AM | 0 recs
Kerry isn't worrying about what Fox News thinks.

I don't think you should either.
Who cares!


by neutron 2006-07-21 07:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

What happens when Pastor Phil at the Bible-Believing Baptist Church announces Ballot Night, when everyone brings their mail-in ballot to Bible Study, and after prayerful reflection that the selections are acceptable in the Lord's sight -- deacons and elders are available for discernment puroposes, to save postage, all of the ballots will be run through the Church's Pitney-Bowes machine?

In thousands of churches.

by Davis X Machina 2006-07-21 11:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Do you mean they're not already doing that?

by prince myshkin 2006-07-21 12:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Billmon is back and at full form!

by Bob Brigham 2006-07-21 12:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Vote by mail is a lousy system because it fails one of the key security challenges any voing system must meet: it fails to protect from vote buying ond coercion.

With the standard secret ballot, it's impossible to reliably sell your vote. You can tell people you'll sell your vote for $X, you can make all the promises you want, but since no one can see you vote you can easily pocket the money and break your promise. Becasue you can easily take the money and not vote the way you promised, no one will pay for your vote.

Of course, vote buying may seem a distant concern, but coercion is not. With the secret ballot, one person in the voting booth at a time, no one can punish you for the way you vote. But with mail in ballots, anyone can impose penalties (social, physical, financial) if you don't cast your vote right in front of them and vote for the "right" candidate.

Think of the possibilities.

A anti-abortion hunsband who makes his secretly pro-choice wife vote in front of him.

A boss who makes his workers vote in the office.

Davis X Machina's scenario of a church that votes together, and subjects people who vote the wrong way to stigma or worse.

Vote by mail is a lousy, lousy idea.

by dantheman 2006-07-21 12:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Yes, my neighbor said she wouldn't let her husband see her vote.  But that could be hard if the spouse is abusive.

by prince myshkin 2006-07-21 12:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System
I'm living in Germany and they make it hard NOT to vote.  Everyone gets a ballot and two weeks to return it, similar to Oregon.  When anyone moves into an area they are required to register at the townhall in order to get city services and I believe all localities are included in a "City Circle". (Rough Translation)  Election day is Sunday, and national law does not allow anyone except emergency personnel and restaurant workers to work on Sunday.  
And I suppose priests.  I think they usually have close to 80% voting.  If Oregon got almost the same thing with just voting by mail, they're doing very well.
by prince myshkin 2006-07-21 12:31PM | 0 recs
Reasons I don't like it

1.  No protection for vote-buying, ballot-nite at church, employer coercement

2.  Extended campaign times:  how long do you have to vote.  Think about it.  In 2000, the Bush DUI was revealed after most people would have voted by mail.  If polls are a 'snapshot' in time- shouldn't election day polls measure the race on election day?
(which could be a weekend)

3.  Vote verification... its a lot easier to keep track of thousands of ballot boxes as opposed to millions of votes.  When I mail in my vote to my heavily Republican (wingnut to boot) County election office here in Kansas, how do I know my vote for Dennis Moore is counted?  Seems to me its the same problem as with electronic voting machines.  Sure, if there is massive vote pitching, some verification calls could be made... but...

...that is no substitute for a pencil, a piece of paper with two boxes and a secure, numbered and trackable (radio tagged) ballot box.  

by jgkojak 2006-07-21 12:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

I've lived in Oregon for four years and love vote-by-mail.  I should point out, though, I have never actually mailed in a ballot.  Every election I put off the actual voting until that final day, fill out the ballot at home and drop it off at one of the local drop-off points.  I don't see why this wouldn't work across the entire country.

Until DanTheMan's post I have never seen a good argument against vote-by-mail.  He makes a good point but I think the benefits far outweigh the concerns.

by Mark Matson 2006-07-21 12:37PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Thinking further, I don't think DanTheMan's arguments hold much water, either.  Absentee balloting is already available most everywhere.  I've yet to see an argument against vote-by-mail that doesn't also apply to absentee ballots.

by Mark Matson 2006-07-21 12:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

In a most jurisdictions absentee balloting is made very difficult, and in many it it illegal to request one unless you have a valid reason (sickness, college student, etc). Where I went to college in PA it was customary to challenge absentee votes on a fairly regular basis.

Not to say, of course, that people can't request absentee ballots now and ell their vote or make their wives request absentee ballots, but the costs in terms of time are much, much higher and it's thus much less likley to happen.

and for the record, I strongly oppose laws that allow you do vote absentee unless you are a student, disabled, elderly etc. A much better solution would be to make election day a national holiday and give everyone the day off.

by dantheman 2006-07-21 01:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

I don't see much problem with it either. How is ballot night at church much different from a bunch of voters showing up at the polls on their church bus? In my opinion, there should be no postage required on these mail-in ballots. I work as a mail carrier and political campaign mail is free. No postage required. If they can solicit my vote for free, I should be able to send my political vote for free. Secondly, the envelopes should not be bar coded at all or have more than one zip code per precinct. This will eliminate any chance of a machine reading a different bar code or zip for registered Dem, Rep, or Ind's. The last thing you need is all reg. Dem votes arriving all in the same tray, making it easy to throw them all away collectivly. I like the way they vote on Sunday in Germany, but I'd rather keep it on Tuesday and make it a national holiday. I'd rather have the extra day off.

by mikeprim 2006-07-21 01:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

How is ballot night at church much different from a bunch of voters showing up at the polls on their church bus?

I can get off the church bus and vote for the godless Democrat, and no one will know.

I can't count on being able to do that in the church basement Wednesday night, not without having to buck a lot of pressure.

It's coercive.

by Davis X Machina 2006-07-21 08:44PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

Alas, forced mail voting isn't what progressives think it is.

Private voting and public counting are the cornerstones of our democracy. Just like the electronic voting systems (e.g. Diebold touchscreens), forced mail voting takes away both the secret ballot and the public vote count.

In general, forced mail voting (where the poll sites are closed and everyone votes by mail) is more expensive, dramatically more unreliable, more complicated, and more insecure. The worst part, however, is the voter turnout declines over time. At least that's the experience of both Oregon and the UK. Each county is a bit different, so your mileage may vary.

Our group, Washington Citizen's for Fair Elections ( protested King County's push to forced mail voting. We successfully got them to postpone the move 3 years, possibly more. King County is one of the largest in the county, so this is a big deal.

I could go on and on about forced mail voting. Here's some take away points.

Just because some absentee voting is good, doesn't make more even better. No-excuses absentee voting doesn't improve voter turnout long-term.

How is your ballot counted? Having a paper ballot isn't enough. Counties spooked by the costs, risks, and bad press over the electronic voting machines are pushing forced mail voting. Surprise! Mail ballots are counted on same insecure, expensive, and unreliable systems. Oregon's procedures aren't the worst possible. But any central count of the ballot is not an improvement over poll sites.

During King Co's Nov 2005 general election, 5% of the ballots received weren't counted for various reasons. In a county of 1.2m registered voters (I think ~660k voted in 2005). That's an incredibly high error rate that simply does not happen with the poll sites. Some may recall that our 2004 Governor's race was decided by 134 votes.

Here's an op-ed our group got published in the Seattle PI:

Let public decide on vote by mail 1999_votebymail30.html

by Zappini 2006-07-21 02:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

There are a lot of assertions there, but I'd like to see some data.

by jsw 2006-07-21 03:58PM | 0 recs
Some Data

Sure. Where would you like to begin?

Similarly, I'd like to see some data supporting the pro-forced mail voting position. Any hard data we get we have to pry out of the elections department. You know, open government and all that. In their own reports, King County openly admits that forced mail voting will be more expensive, not increase turnout, and not increase election integrity. And through open records requests, the non-recoverable error rate is 5%. (Maybe you're okay with 1/20th of the vote not being counted. I actually have some issues with that.)

Pro or con, arguing about "the data" overlooks the fundamental issue of private voting and public counting. In Washington State, that's the constitutional requirement. Kind of moots the argument.

Electronic voting and forced mail voting are equally bad. Both take away the secret ballot as well as the the public vote count.

If you want to have the greatest chance of your vote being counted, you'll cast your paper ballot at a pollsite using voter correctable precinct-based optical scanners. (That means you get a chance to correct the ballot if there's a problem.)

by Zappini 2006-07-22 03:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

As a new resident of Oregon, I love vote by mail. In particular, I get time to study the ballot and research the down ballot races. There are always an amazing number of races I hadn't paid attention to.

This gives local newspapers a lot of influence, since you are likely to use the endorsements as firm guidance. But it's better than choosing the first one listed, or the candidate with an ethnic name similar to yours.

I do believe that there are opportunities for abuse, but until there are cases of it actually happening, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

by PDXPete 2006-07-21 06:48PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

It seems that the same people with the same arguments poo-poo this issue every time it comes up in the blogosphere.

As a long-time Oregon resident, I can say that overall Oregonians are very satisfied with vote-by-mail.  Yes, the ballots are counted on the same optical scan machines, but there are no long lines, no directions to the wrong polling precinct, no shortages of voting machines, no touch-screen machines, etc., etc.

A study (.pdf) by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland in 2005 concluded that

Vote by mail increases turnout, perhaps by as much as 10%. However, the turnout increases result from the retention of existing voters and not from the recruitment of new voters into the system, and the increase is noticeable only in low profile contests. There is no evidence that it provides any partisan advantage. In summary, there is some evidence that VBM results in a small increase in the size of the electorate, and no evidence that it changes the composition of the electorate.

The evidence on ballot integrity is more positive. Analyses of VBM by two separate academic teams concluded that VBM (and absentee balloting systems more generally) result in a more accurate count. Despite having moved to an all by mail voting system in 1998 and having been a battleground state in the last two presidential elections, Oregon has been relatively free from the controversies that have dogged some absentee ballot systems.


What does seem apparent is that an all-mail system is less expensive to administer than a “hybrid” system of polling place and absentee balloting. On voter reactions, Oregonians consistently report strong levels of satisfaction with VBM.

There's much more information than just this in that study. Take a look if you're interested.

by chinook 2006-07-21 08:32PM | 0 recs
It works for us

As Jonathan said, vote-by-mail may not be the best thing for a specific locale. However, in Oregon, it works. We have some of the cleanest elections in the country. While they're not perfect, we certainly don't have the potential for the kinds of things that happened in Ohio. And, honestly, I just don't believe that there are that many corrupt people in our elections offices.

I feel secure in the integrity of our vote. Those ballots are tracked and verified. You can't vote twice. If you're not properly registered, you don't get a ballot. And, since they come out 17 days before the election--if you don't get yours for some reason, you can go to your county elections office and get a replacement.

In 2004, we had a LOT of observers at the county offices. They observed all the opening and verifying of signatures, etc. The ballots are counted by optical scanners, and that is the weak link. There are people looking into that.

No system is foolproof. But I have yet to hear of an actual case where someone felt their vote was coerced. I think the convenience and increase in turnout is well worth the risk.

It sure makes the GOTV effort interesting, since it goes on for 2-1/2 weeks. Campaigns can get updates from elections officials on who has voted, so if you don't get your ballot in, you're increasingly plagued by calls and visits from various organizations.

It's not an official poll or anything, but I don't know anyone here who doesn't like vote-by-mail, and that includes several of those most skeptical about it at its inception.

It can have interesting consequences. My husband thought it would be fun to put my name on the blank for precinct committeeperson in 2002, and we asked our neighbor to as well. Our three votes put me in the party and made me an activist. In 2004, I was elected to the DNC. It never would have happened without vote by mail.

by Jenny Greenleaf 2006-07-21 10:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's Vote-by-Mail System

As a former Oregonian, I have to admit that when the vote-by- mail issue first came up I was sceptical.  After voting that way a couple of times I have become an ardent supporter of the system.  Especially with the advent of the Right Wing pushing electronic voting systems down our throats.  (see Robert F. Kennedy Jr's recent article in Rolling Stone:  "Was the 2004 Election Stolen")  I will grant you that having to pay postage is tantamount to a poll tax (39c a vote) but in a national campaign the Feds could probably foot the bill for postage or the PO eat the cost.  At that, most voters can scrape together 39c to post a ballot.

Jenny Greenleaf's (above) argument is a good one...

by Bumpa 2006-07-22 07:23AM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's

I've done a complete 180 degree turn by this.  I used to love vote by mail.   However, I now think the number one issue in US elections is fraud, and oppose anything that makes fraud easier.  If I had more faith in the electoral system, I might change my mind again.

Voting by mail is typical of the box liberals have put themselves in.  Voting turn out is low in the US primarily because voters are told ad nauseum that they must choose between the Democratic and Republican candidates, and in most elections one of the two parties nominates a candidate who is either clearly not qualified for the office, or has no money to put his or her message out.  People then don't vote or default to the other candidate.  The 2004 presidential election should have demonstrated conclusively that turnout goes up when voters think real issues are at state, and their vote might have an impact.

On the technical side, voting turnout would increase most by making election day a national holiday (why is "Presidents' Day" a national holiday and not election day?), going to the short ballot system (you vote on three or fewer offices each election), and cutting crap like changing the location of polling sites and only telling people at the last minute.  

To put it bluntly, we have low turnout because in most states the political elite wants low turnout.  Oregon is one of the few states with a clean elections tradition.

And yes, use paper ballots that are then counted publically.  I've even turned against absentee voting -there should be a nationwide voter database, and you should be able to show up at any polling location in the country, fill out a PAPER ballot, and officials will then send it by courier to the appropriate election district.  Sort of like absentee voting, but make election officials responsible for making sure this works instead of the post office.  Cut out monkeying with delivering absentee ballots too late.  For Americans abroad and the military, set up special polling locations in embassies, consulates, cultural centers, and military bases.

I will agree that since Oregon uses paper ballots, their system is a big improvement over the hackable electronic machines increasingly in use in the rest of the country.

by Michels 2006-07-22 10:26AM | 0 recs
Re: Kerry Signs on to Oregon's

I'm  confused, you never actually stated a reason to not like vote by mail other than imply it made fraud easier, which I'm not sure is true and you never tried to explain.

Vote by mail isn't good because it gives liberals an advantage, it is good because it is good government.  

by Mark Matson 2006-07-22 11:40AM | 0 recs


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