Oregon's vote-by-mail system came of age on a cold, drizzly night in January 1996. It was the night of the special election to replace the disgraced Bob Packwood in the U.S. Senate with Gordon Smith, the charismatic Republican vegetable farmer from eastern Oregon, facing Ron Wyden, the wonkish Democratic congressman from Portland. It was a classic match up of the two men who, as it turned out, would both represent Oregon in the Senate for the next decade after Smith won the state's other seat in November 1996.
This night, famously, was the first Senate election conducted entirely by mail. Oregon's vote-by-mail experiment, which started quietly in 1981 with local races, was facing its biggest test yet. It finally reached prime time.
By most measures, this was going to be Smith's night. The polls looked good and they had momentum, so his campaign blew up balloons, hired a band, and drew several hundred supporters to the ornate third-floor ballroom at the Governor Hotel in downtown Portland. The stakes were high. A Smith win could spark a national Republican trend in 1996, perhaps even portend a GOP upset of Bill Clinton in the fall. They were ready to party.
But when the votes came in, Wyden won. The Republicans were stunned and wanted to blame vote by mail for the loss.
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