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. Lots of Republicans went nuts thinking it had somehow been stolen by vote by mail, said Dan Lavey, a top Smith strategist.
Nobody could quite figure out if mail voting favored one party over another but that didn't stop both major parties from trying in the months and years ahead. At one point, Democrats opposed vote by mail because they thought it favored Republicans; later Republicans were sure it favored Democrats. The uncertainty delayed full implementation of mail voting until November 1998, when, through a citizen initiative, Oregon made mail voting the only method for voting in all elections. No more voting booths, polling places, or waiting in line.
New Rituals of Democracy
Today, it's hard to see what the fuss was all about. In late April this year, Oregon's 36 counties will mail more than two million ballots for the May 16 primary with little controversy, little expectation of fraud, and a high level of acceptance by the public. A 2003 poll by the University of Oregon showed 81 percent of Oregonians preferred mailing their ballot to going to a polling place.
Other states may struggle with multiple methods of voting, doubts about software, and uncertainty over accuracy and recounts, but Oregon has one system and only one system of casting ballots and it leaves a paper trial. Vote by mail has become a routine part of Oregon's political landscape. But it wasn't easy getting there.
Vote by mail, first of all, is nothing more than an absentee ballot sent to everyone. County elections officers mail out packets about three weeks before Election Day. Voters must return their ballot by mail or drop it off by 8 p.m. on Election Day. State officials say it saves money, increases turnout, and makes voting easier for the elderly, busy parents, or anyone who has trouble getting to the polls. Opponents, though, see increased opportunities for fraud and lament losing the ceremony of going to the neighborhood polling place.
Voting, after all, is the secular sacrament of democracy. It's a communal event shared with the neighbors in a school or maybe a church, a community center, or some other symbol of civic virtue. You stand alone in a little booth, make an entirely private, personal, and unedited statement on government. And when you're done you get a little sticker than says I voted and you get to wear it all day. It's the merit badge of democracy. Tinkering with these proceedings should never be taken lightly.
Vote by mail sneaked up on most Oregonians, and that may be why its arrival went smoothly. In 1981, state lawmakers, with little notice, approved a test program of mail voting for local elections, with the decision left up to county elections officers. In the next few years, a few local races here and there were handled by mail, while the primary and general election every two years remained polling-place elections.
No major changes were being thrust on voters and many may not have seen the practice at first because interest is usually low in local races. Lawmakers, though, liked what they saw and, in 1987, made the vote-by-mail experiment permanent, although still for local elections only. By that year, a majority of counties were using mail ballots for their local elections.
In June 1993, Oregon held its first statewide election entirely by mail, a complicated and boring measure put on the ballot by the Legislature involving voter approval of repayment of urban renewal district bonds. It failed, but turnout was still 39 percent, certainly higher than expected considering the topic.
The system was still untested in the partisan world, but perceptions changed in a 1994 congressional race, even though it was a polling-place election. On Election Night that year, Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse of the 1st District led Republican challenger Bill Witt by 10,000 votes. But as the absentee ballots were counted in the next few days, her lead evaporated to almost nothing. In the end, Furse won but only by 301 votes, one of the closest congressional race in the country that year. The swing to the Republicans came not because people who use the mail somehow favor Republicans but because the party sent absentee ballot requests to all its voters. It was that simple.
But Democrats were wary, suspicious that that mail voting -- still a new phenomenon on the partisan stage, remember -- trended Republican. The Democrats had been whipped in the 1994 elections and were looking everywhere for blame. The 1995 Legislature, controlled by Republicans, approved a plan to extend vote by mail to all elections -- primary, general, and a new special March presidential primary. Many Democrats opposed it, among them Democratic National Chairman Donald L. Fowler, who became a prominent voice against mail voting, saying it would reduce participation among poor and less educated voters.
Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber signed the bill for the presidential primary but vetoed the measure extending mail voting to all elections, much to the disappointment of Democrat Phil Keisling, the secretary of state and the state's chief elections officer, an ardent backer of mail voting. Keisling may have been stymied but got his revenge within a few months. In the fall of 1995, Packwood resigned and Keisling, as was his legal right, got to choose the type of election used to fill the seat. And to the surprise of no one, Keisling decided to use mail voting for both the primary and special election, the nation's first such congressional race.