Mail-in vot­ing lessons from Ore­gon, the state with the long­est his­tory of vot­ing by mail

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY PRISCILLA SOUTHWELL Priscilla Southwell is pro­fes­sor emerita of po­lit­i­cal science at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon. This ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally was pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

Ore­gon vot­ers have long cast their bal­lots by mail in many types of elec­tions, in­clud­ing for lo­cal, state and fed­eral of­fices. They started do­ing so in 1987 — and have voted ex­clu­sively by mail in all elec­tions since 1998.

For much of that time, I and oth­ers have stud­ied how mail-in vot­ing af­fects voter turnout, as well as the po­ten­tial for par­ti­san ad­van­tage or voter fraud.

Ore­gon’s ex­pe­ri­ence shows that mail-in vot­ing can be safe and se­cure, pro­vid­ing ac­cu­rate and reli­able re­sults the pub­lic can be con­fi­dent in. As more vot­ers con­sider us­ing mail-in vot­ing than ever be­fore, there are some lessons they — and their lo­cal and state elec­tion of­fi­cials — can learn from Ore­gon, to help things move more smoothly.

Con­sider tim­ing

Not ev­ery­one in the U.S. knows how to vote by mail. They’ll need help from state and lo­cal of­fi­cials so they know what to do. Ide­ally this will start early, with in­struc­tions about how to get a mail-in bal­lot in ad­vance of the ac­tual bal­lots be­ing sent out to vot­ers.

In Ore­gon, all reg­is­tered vot­ers are au­to­mat­i­cally sent a bal­lot about three weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day. This gives peo­ple plenty of time to re­ceive their bal­lots, con­sider the op­tions and mark and re­turn the bal­lots. They also are less likely to skip vot­ing be­cause of unan­tic­i­pated events like ill­ness or in­clement weather, or be­cause of wor­ries about mak­ing ar­range­ments at work, get­ting to the polling place or wait­ing in long lines be­fore be­ing al­lowed to vote.

By ac­cept­ing mail-in bal­lots in Septem­ber or early Oc­to­ber, states would get a good sense of how many peo­ple will be vot­ing by mail. That would also give elec­tion of­fi­cials and the postal sys­tem time to make plans to han­dle the ad­di­tional traf­fic.

Teach vot­ers what’s ex­pected

In any state, when a voter re­ceives the bal­lot, they must mark it, mak­ing their se­lec­tions for can­di­dates and their choices on ref­er­enda or other bal­lot ques­tions.

In Ore­gon, af­ter mark­ing the bal­lot, the voter puts it into what’s called a “bal­lot se­crecy en­ve­lope,” which con­tains no iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion. This pre­vents elec­tion work­ers or oth­ers from know­ing which per­son cast the bal­lot in­side.

That se­crecy en­ve­lope goes into a sec­ond en­ve­lope, which is what is de­liv­ered to elec­tion of­fi­cials. Each voter must sign the out­side of that sec­ond en­ve­lope. Then the voter can mail the bal­lot back to their lo­cal elec­tion of­fice — in some places, postage is al­ready paid, but in oth­ers vot­ers need to put one or more stamps on it. Al­ter­nately, the voter can take the sec­ond en­ve­lope with its con­tents to one of sev­eral drop-off boxes set up around each com­mu­nity in the state. Many states are plan­ning to set these up and have them reg­u­larly mon­i­tored by elec­tion of­fi­cials, who col­lect the bal­lots.

When the bal­lots ar­rive at the lo­cal elec­tion of­fice, the name and sig­na­ture on the en­ve­lope are com­pared to the of­fi­cial reg­is­tra­tion records. If the sig­na­tures don’t match, the voter is no­ti­fied by mail, and given the op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect or ex­plain the dis­crep­ancy. Of course, such cor­rec­tions take time, so this is a good rea­son for vot­ers who are cast­ing their bal­lots by mail to send in their votes early.

Let vot­ers track their bal­lots

In Ore­gon, each outer en­ve­lope — the one the voter needs to sign — has a unique bar­code printed on it. That lets vot­ers track the sta­tus of their bal­lots af­ter they have ei­ther mailed them or dropped them off.

Be clear about dead­lines

Some vot­ers will al­ways wait un­til the last minute to make their choices. Drop-off sites are good ways to help peo­ple re­turn their bal­lots on or just be­fore Elec­tion Day and to save on postage.

In Jan­uary 2020, Ore­gon set up a sys­tem where vot­ers don’t need to buy postage for the bal­lot en­ve­lope. All bal­lots must be re­ceived at county elec­tion of­fices by 8 p.m. on Elec­tion Day. So some­one who is run­ning late should prob­a­bly avoid the mail­box and find a dropoff site in­stead.

Mail-in vot­ing is pop­u­lar in Ore­gon, and, it seems, around the coun­try.

But there are crit­ics. Some are con­cerned that the sys­tem pro­vides no guar­an­tee of a se­cret bal­lot, but there has been no ev­i­dence that un­due in­flu­ence on vot­ers — like bribes or threats — has been a prob­lem in Ore­gon elec­tions con­ducted by mail.

Oth­ers have falsely claimed there is more fraud with mail-in vot­ing. Ore­gon has mailed out mil­lions of bal­lots over the past three decades, with about a dozen cases of ac­tual fraud. Most prob­lems were un­in­ten­tional er­rors in­volv­ing sign­ing the wrong mail­ing en­ve­lope or as­sum­ing that a voter could sign the mail­ing en­ve­lope for a fam­ily mem­ber.

My re­search, and that of oth­ers, has found that vot­ing by mail boosts turnout mod­estly, es­pe­cially in spe­cial elec­tions and in years with pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Some peo­ple have raised more per­sonal con­cerns about los­ing the rit­ual of go­ing to the polls with other mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. It may be less so­cial to vote at home, but more peo­ple’s voices are be­ing heard.

Crit­i­cism is in­evitable, but skep­tics and sup­port­ers alike can look to the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ore­gon for real an­swers. Per­haps the strong­est ev­i­dence that the sys­tem is eq­ui­table, fair, reli­able and safe is that in two statewide sur­veys I have con­ducted over the years, a nearly iden­ti­cal per­cent­age of Ore­gon Repub­li­cans and Democrats strongly sup­port vot­ing by mail, and the same is true of elected of­fi­cials in the state.

An elec­tions worker in Wil­liamstown, Mass., in­serts mail-in bal­lots into a vot­ing ma­chine on Sept. 1, 2020, dur­ing the state’s pri­mary elec­tion. GIL­LIAN JONES/AP

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