Oregon's Mail Voting System Gains New Cachet Amid Coronavirus

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
March 23, 2020 1 p.m.

Oregon elections officials say they're confident about proceeding with the state's scheduled May 19 primary – but they say it would be very different if they were talking about bringing hordes of would-be voters to thousands of polling stations amid the coronavirus epidemic.


“It would be really difficult,” said Multnomah County elections director Tim Scott.  “I feel for the states that still do most of their voting on election day.”

Seven states and Puerto Rico have already postponed their primary elections, and more delays may be in the works. And if the epidemic continues next fall, it could also jeopardize the ability of voters in many states to participate in the November presidential election.

In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, a voter in Lake Oswego, Ore., places her ballot in a designated drop box outside City Hall. Two Oregon counties are offering the opportunity for U.S. military members, their dependents and others living overseas to vote in special elections this November with smartphones.

In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, a voter in Lake Oswego, Ore., places her ballot in a designated drop box outside City Hall. Two Oregon counties are offering the opportunity for U.S. military members, their dependents and others living overseas to vote in special elections this November with smartphones.

Gillian Flaccus/AP Photo

As a result, the mail voting system pioneered by Oregon and also used in Washington state is now getting new support nationally. Several voting rights groups are pushing for a major expansion of mail balloting. And U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is partnering with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, on a bill to require every state to provide the option of a mail ballot in the November election.

Wyden, who gained his seat in 1996 in the nation’s first all-mail election for a senator, said he now has a new pitch for the GOP majority in the Senate:

“What I’m telling my Republican colleagues is, ‘Look, we could be faced with a choice,” he said, “of either people not voting or people voting by mail.  I don’t think that is even a close call, and I hope you won’t either.’”

Wyden said his bill would provide $500 million in new federal election aid for the states. Among other things, this would help states to pay the extra cost of mailing a ballot to every voter who asks for one. Voters could return those ballots by mail or drop them off at elections offices.  The bill would also expand early voting centers now used in many states.

Mail voting has already become more popular around the country.  Beyond Oregon and Washington, three other states –Colorado, Hawaii and Utah – now mail ballots to every voter. And many states have liberalized their absentee-ballot laws.

All told, nearly 27% of all voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2016 presidential election, double the rate in 2004. And 40% voted early in some fashion.

But in 34 states, the majority of voters still cast their ballots on election day. And many of those states require voters to explain why they can’t vote at the polls before they can receive an absentee ballot.

As a result, many election experts say a dramatic move to mail balloting could be difficult.

“I think the nation is far away from” an Oregon-style system, said Charles Stewart, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A major expansion of absentee voting is more achievable, he said, although “it would be a big lift in many places.”


He said there are numerous administrative and technical requirements for mail balloting that Oregon and other states developed over the course of several years. And he said voters could also be suspicious of a sudden change in how they vote.

Wyden and other mail voting supporters say they think states can successfully build on their current absentee-ballot programs, particularly with the help of federal aid.

“When something fundamental – and it’s hard to think of anything is more fundamental than voting – is on the line,” he said, “we can move quickly.”

Wyden also needs to overcome the traditional opposition from many Republicans who think mail balloting helps increase turnout among voters who lean Democratic.  Wyden argues that older voters – who tend to skew Republican – may most need a mail option this year because their health risks from the coronavirus are higher.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling helped found a non-profit called the National Vote at Home Institute, which promotes mail voting and provides help for elections officials. Keisling said the institute has received a surge of calls from states that want to expand mail balloting.

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So far, it’s mostly been presidential-only primaries that have been delayed. But Keisling said some 44 states are soon scheduled to begin their regular primaries that include balloting for everything from members of Congress to city council members.

“We have a crisis on our hands about ‘small-d’ democracy,” he said, “and we need elections beginning with the primaries and continuing into the fall that maximize voter accessibility … They darn well need to take seriously about it being the only option to have.”

In its March 10 presidential primary, Washington state proved the efficacy of mail voting during an epidemic. The Seattle area was the nation’s first coronavirus hot spot and concern about contracting the disease was already running high.

But the primary came off without a hitch while racking up the highest voter turnout – 50% - of any presidential primary up to that point. In the next round of primaries, on March 17, the least disruption was in Arizona, where more than 80% of voters were estimated to have voted by mail and the turnout rivaled that of Washington.

Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez has urged the remaining states to stick to their scheduled primary schedules while providing easy mail ballot options as well as early voter centers to reduce crowding.

Still, that doesn’t mean Oregon won’t face any hurdles from the epidemic in its May 19 primary. Since Washington’s primary, Oregon and other states have increasingly urged people to stay at home and practice “social distancing.” That makes it harder to ensure the mail ballots are properly processed and counted.

Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said he’s already worried that most of his temporary election workers are in a high-risk category for the coronavirus because they are over 60.

“Staffing may be much lighter than in a usual election,” Burgess said. He explained that he may run additional shifts around the election so he doesn’t have as many workers on duty at any one time. And both he and Scott, the Multnomah elections director, said they plan to reconfigure seating so that elections workers are not seated next to each other.

Scott also said he plans to “look at alternative sources for staffing,” including seeking to recruit Multnomah County employees who have been idled by the shutdown of many normal activities.

Burgess, who is also president of the statewide association of county clerks, said it may take longer to report election results on election night.

“Speed,” he said, “is not going to be as important as the accuracy and safety of our workers while we go through this.”