Can vote-by-mail be a national model?

In Tuesday's Portland Tribune, reporter Jim Redden asked "Is vote-by-mail the solution to the election controversies that have gripped other parts of the country for much of the past six years?"

[Vote integrity activists'] concerns were heightened by numerous problems with Ohio’s primary election, which was held May 2. Among other things, some Ohio voters and elections workers had problems using the state’s new computerized touch-screen voting machines. Similar problems have plagued elections in other states in recent years, too.

In response to questions about the situation in Ohio, Kauffman explained that such problems cannot happen in Oregon because vote-by-mail requires paper ballots that are fed through relatively simple tabulating machines. ...

The ongoing controversies are fueling a grass-roots movement of activists demanding reforms, including a return to old-fashioned paper ballots. More and more, they are looking at Oregon’s vote-by-mail system as a national model. Paper ballots are available for recounts, and elections officials check the signature of every voter who casts a ballot.

According to [Secretary of State aide Anne] Martens, the only other state that checks every signature is New York — and it does not require paper ballots in every race. “Vote-by-mail is more secure than any polling place election, and more secure than any touch-screen,” Martens said.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • Karl (unverified)

    I'm one Oregonian who isn't that happy with vote by mail. I just don't have the confidence that I did when those little old ladies were guarding the box after i personaly put my ballot in. And , with no private polling station, there's no guarartee that votes can't be coerced.

  • VoteByMailNotSoGood (unverified)

    Vote by mail a national model? We can't even get people to vote in Oregon when they have ballots in their hands for 2.5 weeks. With the lowest turnout in decades, where is the proof of success?

  • Anne (unverified)

    Let's put those low turnout numbers in context.

    First, 38% is still higher than our last polling place election, which had a turnout of 35%.

    And, other states who vote in polling places do show remarkable turnout - in a bad way:

    Nebraska: 35% Illinois: 25% Ohio: 24% Indiana: 22% North Carolina: 13% Texas: 9.4%

    That's from this year's primary elections. And no, that last one is not a typo.

    If you read the article, you'll fnd numerous reasons besides turnout to choose vote by mail over both unsecure and unreliable touch-screen machines or polling places fraught with misinformation, long lines and untrained workers.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I've always hated vote by mail. I miss the days when I could go into the booth, shut the curtain, and vote however I wanted and lie to my husband about it later. Now he knows how I really vote.

    Seriously, though, we also need to be sure we have reliable machinery in place for counting those ballots and that we can trust the people verifying signatures not to be particularly harsh in comparing the signatures of members of one party, and particlarly lenient with the other.

    Imagine the kind of people we saw counting ballots in 2000 in Florida verifying signatures. If Florida Republicans were willing to pay ChoicePoint to make up a way to eliminate tens of thousands of black Democrats, what makes anyone believe they wouldn't go to great lengths to find discrepancies in signatures so they could throw out thousands of Democrats' ballots?

    I really think we ought to just go back to the days of showing up at the polls, punching our cards in the closed, private booth, and placing them in the secure box. There wasn't anything wrong with that system.

  • sasha (unverified)

    Oh, for sure Vote by Mail is a national model. In the "Oregon" sense of the word:

    • Like the national model of our statewide land use planning sytem (which nobody copied.)

    • Like the national model of our CIM/CAM school reform (which nobody copied.)

    • Like the national model of our Death with Dignity act (which nobody copied.)

    Yeah, vote by mail is CLEARLY a national model. Just another great "progressive" idea Oregon concocts that everyplace else rejects, while we convince ourselves we are a "model."

    Funny, I always thought the point of a model was to be copied.

  • (Show?)

    I think Vote by Mail offers a significant advantage over touchpad voting in terms both of (1) turnout and (2) paper trail. Yes, voter turnout is lower this year -- a hangover from 2004, and a withdrawal of the multiple millions put into voter turnout in 2004. 38% is low, but not lower than the national trend.

    My imperfect sense is that there is little doubt that Vote by Mail boosts turnout among most voters.

    Two critiques of vote by mail can be dealt with: (1) young voters, and (2) the ritual of the polling place.

    Young People: The one thing I would push for in the national model is to link it with something like same-day voter registration or something else that boosts voter registration specifically among younger voters. Vote by mail doesn't boost turnout much among motile, anti-snail-mail young people. (And Oregon has one of th top-5 deltas between young voters and older voters.) Young people not voting isn't vote by mail's fault...but we should look at ways to boost youth voting as we institute a model that boosts turnout among OTHER voters.

    Community of place: My traditionalist Dad didn't like vote-by-mail, because he liked the community building of the polling place. For my part, I just want more people to vote and to be engaged (and think over time that better yields the public interest). We can boost the community by instituting cultural norms like voting house parties, voting block parties, and other replication of a voting place -- but not expecting working families to have one Tuesday to vote or not at all.

    Summary: Methinks Vote By Mail can be a model and is good. And I think we can make it even better as other State-laboratories experiment. Go democracy! (I'm a dork.)

  • Ben Hubbird (unverified)


    The point of a model is not merely "to be copied", but to provoke a national dialogue on the issue and to demonstrate that there are alternatives to the status quo. I'm not going to defend CIM/CAM -- an all around bad idea -- but I don't think you can argue that any of the models you mention failed to make waves.

    Also, I think generally, when people talk about Oregon as a model for other states they are thinking maybe more of the bottle bill, or medical marijuana, or the Oregon model for long-term care, or the Oregon Health Plan (RIP).

    It's clear, too, that somebody is paying attention to vote by mail.

  • Ben Dover (unverified)

    With gasoline at $3+ per gallon, vote-by-mail is the sensible thing to do.

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Becky, if your husband doesn't give you, in the weeks you have your ballot, an unsupervised half-hour to fill it out in private, there are some excellent women's shelters in this state.

    And if you really think there "wasn't anything wrong" with the punchcard system, where were you vacationing in the winter of 2000-2001?

    Maybe it was always convenient for you to get to a polling place during the open hours. Maybe you were never greeted by a long line and the realization that you'd have to choose between voting and some other significant responsibility.

    That's nice.

  • molehunter (unverified)

    Sasha S is almost certainly a fake name for a right-wing mole (the email address is fake). Sasha is probably also his MySpace name -- where he trolls for youngsters to chat up.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Suzii - Back in the "punch card" days we also had absentee ballots for those who couldn't make it to the polls on election day.

    As for my husband and your suggestion of a women's shelter, that is ridiculous. Just because I don't feel like arguing with him about my choices doesn't mean I'm abused. Grow up.

    Anyway, I don't think we need a punch card system per se - we could go back to those cards where you fill in the little circles - no hanging chads there. The point is, with that system you have a paper trail and no one can decide your signature isn't valid. You just have to have a reliable counting machine or enough human beings to do the counting.

  • Garlynn (unverified)

    I think that vote-by-mail is the most promising national model that we have currently available. If voter turnout is low, at least you know it's not due to the technology, it really and truly is just voter apathy... that is, unless people can't even be bothered to pay for the stamps!! That would be the only change that I would recommend to vote-by-mail, is to have our gov't cover the cost of postage in order to remove that final barrier.

    Vote by mail allows folks to surf the internet while they vote, or read the newspaper, or have a discussion with family members. I give it two thumbs up, and really hope that it turns into a national model, or even gets recognition at the federal level as Congress begins to look at fixing the voting system.

  • ajsmith (unverified)

    Just another great "progressive" idea Oregon concocts that everyplace else rejects, while we convince ourselves we are a "model."

    Actually, Washington followed our lead in allowing permanent no-excuse absentee, and voters flocked to it. So much so that most of their counties have already switched to all-VBM and this year they are likely to join Oregon as an all-VBM state.

    Arizona recently began allowing cities to switch over to all-VBM (Tucson did so last month) and this year they will have an initiative on the ballot to go statewide VBM.

    Four years ago, California began allowing permanent no-excuse absentee reg, and in '06 nearly 50% of all ballots cast are expected to be of the mail-in variety. In addition, at least seven counties are seeking permission to move to all-VBM, and their state county clerks this year called for statewide VBM elections.

    Vote By Mail is has already become a model, and its implementation is spreading. In fact, this year the Vote By Mail Project was launched (full disclosure, I'm the ED) to do education and advocacy around the full continuum of VBM options (permanent no-excuse absentee, city and county option vbm, and statewide vbm.)

    It's more secure, it gives us opportunities to reach folks who have their ballots in hand to promote higher turnout, and voters overwhelmingly prefer it (80.9% of Oregonians, in a 2003 study.)

    The Vote By Mail Project

  • Levon (unverified)

    Noticeably absent from the Oregon's lead editorial today was any mention of the mainstream media's impact on voter turnout and overall cynicism and disengagement.

    The paucity of coverage of state politics on television certainly violates their FCC license mandates.

    The Oregonian's focus on drama and conflict and cyncical coverage often devoid of substance influences certainly influences how citizens view government and the entire process.

    Vote by mail's benefits far outweigh its perceived disadvantages. Still, it's no cure-all for what ails the republic and the state of Oregon.

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Becky: Seriously. If your husband insists on seeing your ballot when you would prefer to lie to him about how you vote, it's time to start thinking about at least some counseling. That's not how grown-ups treat each other.

    Yes, I remember those absentee-ballot days.

    It's such a good use of tax money for the county to process a note from your doctor or your boss averring you physically can't make it to the polls (lots of states are still doing this).

    So Oregon figured that eligible voters are supposed to be responsible adults and allowed anybody to request an absentee ballot without stating/proving a reason. Hordes of people realized that it sucked to read and decide on two dozen ballot measures while standing up with a long line of impatient neighbors wishing you'd clear the booth and started requesting absentees for each and every election.

    So Oregon figured that it's inefficient to have to process absentee requests over and over for repeat absentee voters, and allowed people to request permanent absentee status. Vast teeming masses took advantage of this, and within a few years a huge proportion of votes was coming in by mail.

    At that point, Oregon was running two parallel voting systems. One cost the state far more than the other, brought in less voter participation, and was clearly losing popularity. Although legislative attempts had failed or been vetoed for years, it was not a surprise that the ballot measure establishing vote-by-mail passed definitively: 757,204 to 334,021, 69% to 31%.

    You're allowed to go down and watch any part of the process, including the signature check. You can also get your own voting record from the county and find out whether every ballot you've submitted was counted.

    By the way, what county are you in? I thought all 36 counties are now on optical scan (fill-in-the-circles) systems.

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Oops. Italics off.

  • David (unverified)

    I was someone who originally opposed Vote by mail but now support it because it makes voting so much easier and more accessible. It is already successful as a national model and I would not be suprised to see many states adopting it relatively soon. When I was working in Iowa during the 2000 and 2002 elections while I was in college, the Iowa Democrats made a huge push to get everyone registered for absentee ballots. They did this because they knew it would push people to vote that might otherwise be harder to convince. In fact, in 2000, Dubya won the count of the votes cast on election day in Iowa but Gore carried the state because the D's had so many more people who had voted absentee.

    Generally, anything that increases turnout is good IMHO. I do however, see a few flaws in the system:

    1. I don't see how same day voter registration can really be accomplished because there are no precinct voting places. Sure you can go to the county elections office but in many counties that is not feasible and, additionally, each precinct has a different ballot and you need to make sure people have the right one.

    2. I agree the signature verification proccess needs to be more transparent.

    3. I think we need to work to establish more drop boxes, especially in rural parts of the state, in order to make it easier to vote.

  • Don McIntire (unverified)

    Vote by mail? Blasphemy? If there's no polling places, how can I get Diebold machines that leave no paper trail into them, and make sure Northeast Portland gets one machine per precinct, while Red areas get tons and tons of machines?

  • (Show?)

    In response to David...

    1. It would mean that those counties that are so big that getting to the county elections office is difficult would need to set up some kind of mobile stations at least the week of the election. Getting people the correct ballot is very easy. It's already done with people who are already registered, but need to change their address. Or those whose ballots never make it to them, whose ballots are lost after arriving, are damaged, etc. Each ballot has a code on it, which specifies which precinct it belongs to.

    2. The signature verification process is already transparent-- anyone can go into the elections office and watch as the signatures are verified. In 2004, we had dozens of people who did exactly that.

    3. Drop boxes are great. I regularly use the ones at the Gresham and Rockwood libraries.

  • (Show?)

    I just don't have the confidence that I did when those little old ladies were guarding the box

    ...yeah, only all those little old ladies are dying off - and there aren't new ones to replace them.

    Seriously, this is a major problem around the country. Some counties are going so far as to grant 2-for-1 vacation days to county employees who will use a vacation day to staff polling places. The problem of staffing polling places with people who care passionately about elections BUT aren't partisans on one side or the other is a profound one.

    Vote by mail dramatically reduces the cost of elections.

    For those who are yammering on and on about the ritual of going to a polling place, I suggest talking to folks in urban Ohio who stood in line for 4-5 hours, only to have the machines break down and get turned away.

  • Karl (unverified)

    Seriously, this is a major problem around the country. Some counties are going so far as to grant 2-for-1 vacation days to county employees who will use a vacation day to staff polling places. The problem of staffing polling places with people who care passionately about elections BUT aren't partisans on one side or the other is a profound one.

    If that is true, and we can't get volunteers, that's a problem with our culture and the core belief in our system. I suppose the death of the fairness doctrine in media, the "money is speech" rulings of the court, the increase of corruption and the general disconnect between the people and those running for office could be mostly to blame for that.

    I personally think "vote by mail" adds to that by devaluing voting's importance--making it a matter of convenience. I think making election day a holiday, as is done in some countries, would be a better model....That along with re-instituting the fairness doctrine and having some government mandated prime time forums and debates before elections.

    The people in Ohio need to deal with their corrupt and incompetent apparatus. During my 40 years of voting at polling places, I never saw problems like that. It might be good to allow international monitors. Of course then we would have to comply with international standards for democratic elections which even Oregon doesn't do (the head of elections is not a non-partisan office).

    When you vote in private at a polling place, it is very difficult for your vote to be coerced. When you mail your ballot in, its not. This may or may not be a problem now, but I would not be surprised if it becomes one.

  • Gentry Lange (unverified)

    I've posted a long statement as to why I oppose Vote By Mail that I think summarizes the concerns of those of us opposing vote by mail.

    <h2>I fear the national model will be VBM and Touchscreens.</h2>
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