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Vote-by-Mail: The Real Winner Is Democracy

By Bill Bradbury
Saturday, January 1, 2005; Page A23

While many states were embroiled in fights over touch-screen voting machines and provisional ballots and struggling to find enough people to staff polling places, Oregon once again quietly conducted a presidential election with record turnout and little strife.

Oregon's vote-by-mail system has proved reliable and popular. Critics said that vote-by-mail is prone to fraud. But signature verification of every voter before a ballot is counted is an effective safeguard against fraud.

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Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate contended that vote-by-mail would suppress voter participation. But record numbers of Oregonians registered to vote, and almost 87 percent of them cast ballots.

Critics argued that vote-by-mail eliminates the communal experience of voting on Election Day. But community activities promoting voting were readily available to Oregonians on Election Day and in the days leading up to it. With two weeks to conduct public education and get-out-the-vote efforts, Oregonians were surrounded by civic engagement reminders. Oregonians have also started a new communal experience: voting at home, showing their children the ballot and talking to them about how important it is to vote.

Vote-by-mail is voter-friendly, and high turnout in every vote-by-mail election shows that voters like the convenience. Oregonians receive ballots in the mail two weeks before Election Day, allowing ample time to research issues, review and mark the ballot, and eliminating the need to stand in long lines waiting for a polling booth.

Voters are busy, but voting fits their schedule if they may return their ballot at any time during those two weeks and up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Voters may mail their ballots or save a stamp by dropping them off in person at any of the official sites located throughout the state. The earlier that ballots come in, the more time election officials have to check for any problems and to process the ballots to ensure that every vote counts. With a large number of ballots received before Election Day, the first tally released on election night contained nearly 50 percent of the vote and proved to be an accurate predictor of the final numbers.

Vote-by-mail provides an automatic paper trail. Every vote-by-mail ballot is read by reliable optical scan machines, and the paper is available should a hand recount become necessary. Mailed ballots are not forwarded by the post office, and the constant updating of voter rolls provided by returned ballots allows Oregon to have accurate and updated voter rolls without the risk of partisan purges.

Without polling places, vote-by-mail eliminates the expensive and time-consuming recruitment and training of poll workers. As a result, the cost of a vote-by-mail election is nearly 30 percent less than the cost of a polling place election.

Centralized supervision and control of ballot processing by elections officials in county elections offices, instead of dispersed polling places, maintains uniformity and strict compliance with law throughout the state.

An impressive percentage of Oregon's registered voters cast ballots in this election. Each of those voters can be confident that the mechanism of democracy in Oregon suits their needs, runs smoothly and fairly, and, most importantly, protects their votes.

The answer to the nation's voting anxiety is not a national standard that imposes new rules on an outdated system of polling places. The answer is a low-tech, low-cost, reliable and convenient system that makes it easier to vote and easier to count votes. The answer is vote-by-mail.

The writer is Oregon's secretary of state.

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