Here's what Election Day will look like in Oregon this fall. Most of the voting will not take place on Election Day at all but probably sometime in October. It's after dinner and the family gathers around the kitchen table to vote. Mom and dad, maybe with children old enough to be interested, get out the Voters' Pamphlet and a few newspaper articles and mark their ballots.
The discussion starts. What do you think of this candidate? What about that measure? Item by item, ballots are marked and then either mailed or set aside half-finished to allow a little more time to think. This is democracy at the kitchen table, not the polling place.
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.