On a typical Election Day in the U.S, hundreds of people line into polling places to cast their votes. But as we all know now, in the COVID-19 age, that’s not so safe. Public health experts are urging election officials to consider different ways to safely vote.
Enter mail-in voting.
Several states have already made the switch to this type of voting for their primary elections this year, albeit with some considerable fits and starts. And in other states, politicians are still squabbling over the idea.
But while mail-in voting has become a very hot topic nationwide, here in Oregon it’s old news. In fact, Oregon voters made mail-in ballots the state’s standard system more than 20 years ago. And it first got the green light for local state elections back in 1981.
“It's been the law now since 2000,” said Phil Keisling, Oregon’s former secretary of state. “Every election is done this way, where voters automatically get their ballots in the mail ahead of time.”
Keisling served as secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, which was a pivotal and somewhat tumultuous period for mail-in voting in the state. Keisling said, during his tenure, the state legislature tried to pass legislation twice that would have Oregonians vote-by-mail exclusively.
“It was a big political fight,” Keisling said.
The first time in 1995 it was vetoed by then Gov. John Kitzhaber. The second time in 1997, it was killed in the state senate, before it could even get to the governor's desk. Oregon voters finally settled the matter in 1998 when they overwhelmingly voted to expand mail-in voting to primary and general elections. Two years later, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to conduct a presidential election with mail-in voting. That election saw a whopping 79% voter turnout, according to an Oregon secretary of state's office timeline.
So since Oregon is a vote-by-mail veteran, there’s probably been years of voter fraud recorded in the state too, right?
According to Keisling, not so much.
“I've heard the same amped-up conspiracy theories for 30 years,” Keisling said. “There's never been any evidence of significant attempts, much less success.”
This nationwide voter fraud narrative distracts from the fact that vote-by-mail significantly increases voter turnout. Keisling said Oregon typically gets a 50% voter turnout in primary elections compared to other states who get half that amount. Oregon's primary on May 19 saw 46% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
And it’s notable that this increase is across the board in all demographics.
“The young, old, rich, poor, Democrats, Republicans, non-affiliated voters, white, non-white,” Keisling said. “All voter groups have higher turnout when they're automatically getting their ballot several weeks before Election Day.”
Besides the huge perk of not having to wait in long lines on Election Day, another major (and some could argue the most significant) advantage of vote-by-mail is that voters can simply take the time to learn about all the candidates and measures on the ballot.
“When I asked people what they like best about it, almost all of them [say] they feel they cast a more informed vote on their time schedule and on their terms,” Keisling said.