Beginning next year, Oregon voters will be able to drop their ballot in the mail on Election Day without worrying it will be rejected, under a bill that has passed the state Legislature.

House Bill 3291 cleared the state Senate on a razor-thin 16-13 margin Thursday, with one reluctant Democrat allowing the bill to pass despite his misgivings. The bill passed the House of Representatives last month.

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If signed by Gov. Kate Brown, HB 3291 would ensure ballots are accepted as long as they’re postmarked on or before Election Day, and reach elections officials within a week of the election. Under current law, ballots are only counted if they have been received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Election worker Lucille Travis works at an automated signature reading machine as she helps process ballots at the Multnomah County election office in Portland, Ore., Nov. 2, 2020.

Election worker Lucille Travis works at an automated signature reading machine as she helps process ballots at the Multnomah County election office in Portland, Ore., Nov. 2, 2020.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The bill also would allow county clerks to begin counting ballots when they’re received, rather than waiting until a week before an election. It would also change some dates related to elections.

Lawmakers have repeatedly considered changing Oregon’s pioneering vote-by-mail system to account for postmarks — a move that California, Washington and other states have taken. But the Legislature has balked at the move in the past, including in 2001, when many Democrats opposed the bill.

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This year, the concept’s support came almost solely from Democrats, who say that the practice will eliminate confusion about when a ballot can be safely mailed and still count.

The bill “will provide more access to voting by mail, while also protecting the integrity of our elections system,” Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said on the Senate floor.

But Senate Republicans disagreed, insisting again and again that the bill would provide a “highway for fraud.” Much of that concern centered on a provision in the new bill that would allow mailed ballots to be counted if an error in the postal system meant a postmark is missing or not legible.

Republicans in both chambers have argued that provision could lead to gaming the system. But Democrats have countered that ballots require a voter’s signature, which would double as an attestation, under penalty of perjury, that it was mailed on or before Election Day.

Republicans also worried about the provision allowing ballots to be counted earlier, saying that would allow early returns to leak.

“This bill has problems,” said Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, who unsuccessfully pushed a modified version on the floor. “It needed to be fixed.”

One key lawmaker nearly agreed. During a roll call vote, state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, did not initially answer when his name was called. He voted yes, it appeared, when it became clear that his vote would be necessary for the bill to pass.

“I reluctantly voted for this today,” Beyer said after the vote. “My concern is, in close races ... that delaying the returns for a week or two afterward will undermine faith in the system. I hope I’m wrong.”

The governor’s office did not answer an inquiry about whether Brown would sign the bill.

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