Oregon currently has the highest rates of voter turnout in the entire country. Two factors political scientists point to are the state’s vote by mail system and the “motor voter” law that automatically registers people to vote when they get their driver’s license. We talk with former Oregon Secretary of State and vote-by-mail advocate Phil Keisling about the numbers and what they mean.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB,. I’m Dave Miller. Regular listeners to this show might remember some dismal statistics about Oregon, like the fact that we have the second worst addiction rate in the country and the worst rate of access to addiction support, or that our fourth graders are among the worst performers nationally in terms of reading and math. So some good news is always welcome. It comes from the US Election Project, which found that for the first time ever, Oregon just had the highest turnout rate in the nation. Phil Keisling joins us to talk about how our state came out on top. He’s a former Oregon Secretary of State and a founder and current chair of the National Vote From Home Initiative. Welcome back to the show.
Phil Keisling: Thanks.
Miller: There are a few different ways to calculate voter turnout in elections. So what exactly is Oregon number one in for the most recent election?
Keisling: The two methods are registered voters, because not everybody registers to vote, and the second is eligible citizens. So you take everybody who’s 18 and older who’s legally eligible to vote, registered or not.
Miller: And meaning, for example, take away people who are incarcerated and other people who are not allowed to vote.
Keisling: Yes, exactly. And so when you use that denominator, you at least can have consistency across all 50 states. And the problem with active registered voters is states vary about how they define that. So most academics and a lot of the national press will use eligible voters, and the US election project is best known for it. So we came up 61.5% of all the eligible citizens in Oregon cast a ballot in our election. We edged out Maine by 0.05%. But as I say, in bobsled racing, that can win you a gold medal over a silver.
Miller: So we got the gold medal. Was it a surprise to you?
Keisling: It wasn’t, and it should be more noted by the national press. It wasn’t a surprise because we’ve been fifth or six, sometimes third over the last 20 years because we automatically send every voter their ballot. But in the last few years we’ve increased the percentage of our citizens who have been registered through automatic voter registration, which we enacted in 2015. So getting to number one, first time in modern history, is an achievement. Although it hasn’t quite been noted yet by the national press, who published a lot of stories about the top performers before our final votes had been counted. So we never did get the credit I think we deserve. Maybe they’ll listen to this show.
Miller: I’m sure they will. When automatic voter registration took effect a couple years ago, within a couple of years, there were many more registered voters than before. Many of them were unaffiliated. And it seemed like a perfectly plausible outcome that those people who probably hadn’t voted before, hadn’t actively chosen to register, they had just not chosen to not register. It seemed very likely that they maybe wouldn’t vote. Is that what happened?
Keisling: Well, let’s step back. In a midterm election, we still had approximately one third of our registered voters not cast a ballot. So we got about two million voted, and another one million didn’t. The genius of the vote-at-home system, and I’ll talk maybe a little later about why we call it that and not vote by mail anymore, is that it’s an opt-out system. If we know you’re an active registered voter, you will get the ballot, whether you even expect it or even want it, quite honestly. And you don’t have to vote. It is perfectly voluntary. But a lot of those folks that did register through the automatic voter registration system did start voting. And that’s again one of the things that powered us from fifth or third position in the first position. So the two of those working together is an especially powerful combination. But I’d argue that the main reason we’ve been a leader across the country and voter turnout has probably had more to do with the automatic delivery of ballots already registered, but both have really helped.
Miller: Let’s turn to the language question that you brought up. Why do you like to use the word vote-at-home as opposed to vote-by-mail?
Keisling: Well, because about three years ago I realized that vote-by-mail was an inaccurate description of our system. Think about it “vote-by-mail?” 70% of Oregonians actually return their ballot in person to a dropbox to an election office, etc. It’s true in Colorado, Washington, the other states that have done this. And we’re now up to eight states, by the way, plus DC. And so when you call it universal vote-by-mail, and I’ve been in a running battle with the New York Times for decades, “you’re calling it the wrong thing!”
Miller: You’re losing the battle?
Keisling: I’m losing the battle, I’ve just been slammed. But it suggests to people that you have to vote-by-mail. “Well I have to use the postal service to return my ballot. Oh, I’m not so sure I want to do that, I’m not sure I trust the system, etc.” So it’s important in a system such as ours to recognize that you have to have in person options also. But deliver the ballots.
Miller: It’s interesting. If I hear you correctly, you’re arguing two things. One, that it’s technically not the most accurate way to describe the current system, But maybe more importantly, you’re arguing that it actually could dissuade people who might otherwise vote from voting because they don’t trust the mail system.
Keisling: Yeah, exactly. And I think it’s one of the challenges we have as a national organization. We have been doing this in Oregon, in fact this year is the 25th year since we passed the ballot initiative in 1998, 2 to 1 margin, passed in every county. But it took until 2014 to even have three states do it. By 2018 we had four: Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Utah, one in 20 voters in the United States. And it was kind of seen as this odd, “you’re strange out there on the west coast.”
Miller: “You have death with dignity laws, you will soon pass psilocybin assisted therapy law. You’re an outlier.”
Keisling: Yeah. So what happened then with the pandemic in 2020 is it really fundamentally transformed the discussion. But even more importantly, it just brought attention to the issue in an exponentially increased way.
Miller: But attention in various ways.
Keisling: Yeah, good and bad.
Miller: There were people who voted for the first time in this way, all over the country. And then, largely driven by Donald Trump’s outright falsehoods and lies, there was way more partisan attacks on this method of voting than I’d ever seen before. What effect do you think those attacks had on your movement?
Keisling: Well, I think both good and bad. For one thing, it’s important to recognize for those in Oregon who know the history, this was a Republican idea. Yours truly, as a Democratic state legislator, voted against it the one and only time he had a chance to address it in 1989. Now I didn’t do it, I think, for partisan reasons. I like the tradition of going to the polls, the crunch of autumn leaves under crisp blue skies and seeing my neighbors. And it was only after I became secretary of state that I realized I had been confusing a certain ritual of democracy that was well known and beloved by many with the essence, which was participation. And it was the county clerks that opened my eyes. I became a very strong advocate of it in the 1990s. But when we finally got the bill passed in the Oregon legislature in 1995, it was vetoed by the Democratic governor. And it was encouraged by the Democratic National Committee. I had some really strange conversations with folks out of Washington DC. So after Wyden got elected in a special Senate race in 1996, a lot of [Democrats] changed their minds, and we went forward and passed with big bipartisan support.
Fast forward to 2020. Suddenly we faced the prospect of November where you can’t open polls safely. We didn’t know in April or May how bad the pandemic was going to get. And so it became really partisan. But what was interesting, Dave, is that Trump said two things, and we think he only said one. The first thing he said was “systems like Oregon are terrible because when you get higher turnout, Republicans lose.” Now, the academic research suggests that turnout goes up for everybody, the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the rural, the urban, the suburban, and it probably doesn’t give advantage to either party. But the second thing he said was “you should vote on Election Day, don’t apply for a mail ballot, even in states where you have to apply like my own state of Florida,” he himself voted that way. It was the second thing that I think was really interesting, because I think it discouraged turnout among his base a lot more than the Democrats. And meanwhile Democrats, who had always been a little skeptical of it, well they used it a lot more than Republicans.
Miller: I’m curious in a broader sense, do you think that the politicization of vote-at-home or vote-by-mail has led to a slowdown in what had seemed like the beginning of a crescendo, with California and other states adopting these systems? Has it had an effect to slow down this march?
Keisling: I think in some states it has, Arizona being a good example, 80% get their ballots already, just sign up one time and they keep coming. And I think that it’s become a partisan issue in a place like that.
But what has happened is we’ve doubled the number of states and quadrupled the number of voters who live in the system. One in five voters in the 2020 midterm got their ballots this way.
Miller: Got their ballots automatically or chose to?
Miller: And then the number of people who voted from home would definitely be higher than that, because plenty of other people in a variety of patchwork of state laws could request a ballot?
Keisling: Yeah. Most states now are no excuse. And in fact, not a single state that had permanent laws for no excuse repeal those, even after 2020, even in Republican states. They made it a little bit more difficult, but they kind of kept no excuse because I think that would have been too tough of a political bridge to cross. And you got four other states that went full in, Nevada, Vermont, so we now have an east coast state, DC, which has the highest proportion of minority citizens of any jurisdiction in the country has gone this way as well. So you’ve broadened the interest in it geographically. But you clearly have made it difficult to push more states past the eight we got.
The final thing I’ll say on that is you suddenly see some Republicans who have been opposing it just generically who have now been saying recently, after 2022, well maybe we ought to rethink it. Maybe we ought to encourage our voters to use it too.
Miller: We can, and we should, celebrate the fact that Oregon led the nation in the 2022 election with the highest voter turnout in the country. But another way to look at this, and in my mind an important one, is that the glass is 40% empty here. Why are so many people still not voting?
Keisling: Well, in the midterm election, you get lower turnout. In our presidential election we did even better.
But no, I think that’s a real problem. And I think there’s a couple of reasons. One is that a lot of Americans are tired of the partisanship. You look at Oregon where upwards of 40% of the voters are registered now as not affiliated in either party. 18-34 year olds, it’s the biggest single choice they make, over half are registered that way. And I think that it’s not a panacea for the turnout problem. What we say over and over again is that if you want to create a system where you’re likeliest to get the highest turnout, if you do the other things right, this is the system you have. But it’s the responsibility of the parties to reach out, particularly to a lot of young voters that are often ignored. And I think it’s the responsibility of all of us to look at ways that we can actively engage more voters. You see reforms like ranked choice voting so you don’t have to throw away a vote if you don’t want to vote for the Democrat or Republican, you can rank choice. And various forms of open primary elections, because the primary election continues to be the worst offender. Even Oregon has a struggle to get more than 40% of its voters to participate, and that’s double what it is in most states. But in states with 20% turnout in elections that often determine who the real winners are in most of the cases, that is truly a challenge to small d democracy.
Miller: Do you think there’s anything else that Oregon lawmakers or Oregon voters could do to make it easier to vote in Oregon? Or is that done? You’re automatically registered, you automatically get a ballot. Is there anything else that can be done to grease this process even more?
Keisling: Oh, there’s always a few things we can improve on. One example that I think some states do a better job than Oregon does is the notion of vote centers, where people can go at the last minute, let’s say, if they need to update the registration with the new address or they’ve moved here. I think we should move to same day registration or something close to it. And I think we should just make sure we have as many in person opportunities as makes sense. And I think we could do a better job with that.
But we have made big strides. We do free postage now. We’ve set up a lot of drop boxes that any voter can use, even if they’re on the other side of the state. But we’ve got to continue to improve every election system. Oregon should not rest on its laurels, and Oregon shouldn’t accept 61%, we should go for the next midterm to try to go even higher.
Miller: Phil Keisling, thanks very much.
Keisling: Thank you.
Miller: Phil Keisling is former Oregon Secretary of State, founder and current chair of the vote-from-home initiative.
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