A Better Way to Vote
SALEM, Ore. -- This month, as controversies emerged in other parts of the country over polling place problems and malfunctioning touch-screen machines, we here in Oregon prepared to swear in a new crop of elected officials with nary a question about the legitimacy of the count or the functioning of our electoral process. We accomplished this with a turnout on Nov. 7 that was, once again, among the highest in the nation. How? With Vote by Mail.
One episode that highlights its success occurred in Tillamook County, where 13 inches of rain on Election Day sent many citizens scrambling to the safety of shelters under a declared state of emergency. Despite the fact that many roads were impassable and parts of the county were inaccessible -- conditions that would have crippled turnout in a state that relied on conventional polling places -- 70 percent of the voters cast ballots. Only voting by mail could have led to this outcome.
Voting by mail was launched statewide through a people's initiative in 1998, which passed by a 70 to 30 percent margin. Every registered voter receives a paper ballot in the weeks before Election Day. The ballot can be either mailed back or dropped off at one of a number of secure sites statewide.
The system has proven to be fraud-free. Oregon is one of only two states in the nation to verify every single voter signature against the signature on that voter's registration card. Our process is transparent and open to observation. Finally, the returned paper ballots, which are the official record of the election, can be recounted by hand.
With voting by mail, Oregon's turnout is consistently among the highest of any state without same-day voter registration. We don't suffer with long lines at polling places, with voter harassment or intimidation, with fears about malfunctioning or easily hacked voting machines, or from lack of a paper trail. Even floodwaters don't keep voters from participating. Under Oregon law, mailed ballots are not forwarded if a voter has moved, and those returned ballots have allowed us to maintain one of the cleanest and most up-to-date registration lists in the country.
Voting by mail is also a cost-effective way to run elections, costing taxpayers about 30 percent less than polling-place elections.
A University of Oregon study conducted five years after the adoption of voting by mail statewide showed that 80 percent of voters across the political spectrum prefer it to voting at polling places. It's a system that answers the needs of Americans who lead increasingly busy, complex lives, balancing many work and family responsibilities.
Election days were originally scheduled on Tuesdays because that was when farmers brought their crops into town to sell. Today on an average Tuesday people balance multiple jobs, soccer practice and child care. Voting by mail gives them ample opportunity to stay engaged in our most crucial democratic process.
The foundation of our democracy rests upon the administration of free, fair and highly participatory elections. It's critical that Americans have faith in the security of their vote. Here in Oregon, with voting by mail, we have achieved those things and been able to assure voters that their votes count.
And if our elections aren't quite as exciting, or if the results aren't as likely to be disputed as some others around the country, well, we'll just have to live with that.
The writer is Oregon's secretary of state.