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What Oregon can teach us about mail-in voting

Both Washington and Oregon vote by mail, but Washington may wait weeks to see their final election results, where Oregon will have unofficial results on election night.

Thankfully for the sanity of Americans across the country, Washington isn't a battleground state for the presidency that could determine the outcome of the Electoral College. One can only imagine the conspiracy theories and wall to wall coverage of TV talking heads exploding as vote results from Washington trickle in little by little, first days and then weeks after Election Day, as the country anxiously waits to learn who the next president would be.

While Americans in general won't have to be put through this type of turmoil (unless things go poorly in Ohio), unfortunately for Washingtonians, this is exactly what we have to look forward to based on the closeness of several state races. Two new polls out today (UW and KING 5) show several races are within the margin of error, including an essentially tied race for Governor.

With races this close it is hard to imagine enough votes will have been returned and counted by Election Day to declare a winner.

Though some may see fraud or mischief as the vote totals flip in the days or weeks following November 6, the real problem of Washington's month-long election is the cynicism and distrust it unnecessarily breeds in the state's election results.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, all we have to do is look across the Columbia River to Oregon to see a working alternative. 

Thanks to a bill adopted in 2011, all of Washington is now vote by mail. Unlike in Oregon (that is also all vote by mail), however, Washington ballots aren't due on Election Day, but simply need to be postmarked before then.

According to an email from Brenda Bayes, Elections Deputy Director for Oregon, the state's 14-year requirement of ballots being due by 8 p.m. on Election Day is working well.

“Oregon has been a complete vote by mail state since voters cast their ballot to expand vote by mail to all elections by a vote of 757,204 to 334,021 at the 1998 general election. Voters have now had experience in Oregon's vote by mail system for fourteen years. A voter has many different ways to ensure that their voted ballot is received by the county elections officials no later than 8:00 pm on Election Day. County dropsites are placed throughout the state starting the 18th day prior to an election up through 8:00 pm on Election Day. Voters have the option of dropping their ballots off at official dropsites, mailing their ballot by mail or dropping their ballot off at any county elections office.

If a voter is concerned about their ballot they may track their ballot online at oregonvotes.gov to see if their ballot has been sent or received, contact their county elections office or contact our office to inquire into the status of their ballot. Oregon continually educates voters on the election process and deadlines in publications such as county or statewide voters' pamphlets, informational inserts received with their ballots, publications on county websites and media announcements.

Our office typically does not receive complaints regarding a voter feeling like they are 'disenfranchised' solely based upon the 8:00 pm restriction. An individual may contact their legislature if they wish to ask them to draft a bill during session to allow for postmarks on ballot. To my knowledge, there has not been any such legislation to extend this deadline. Oregon voters appear to appreciate that they are able to have 'unofficial results' quickly after the 8:00 pm deadline regarding candidates and measures. If Oregon were to go to a 'postmark' deadline it would delay these unofficial results.”

Retiring Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring mail-in ballots to be turned in by Election Day. Last year HB 1185 and companion proposal SB 5125 were introduced to make this change, but were not acted on by the Legislature (though SB 5125 did receive a hearing).


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 11:42 p.m. Inappropriate

So what if we're one of 11 states that uses the postmark to determine ballot timeliness? Unless Mercier's right-wing Washington Policy Center manages to successfully privatize the postal service (in which case the reliability of said postmark would be open to question) voting is too important a right/responsibility to arbitrarily limit ballots to those received before 8 p.m. or whatever.

In many races, voting results are lopsided enough that winners are declared/losers concede the same night anyway. If it's close, maybe it takes a little longer to make sure all the ballots are counted, but the pundits and pollsters and politicians will be just fine without having instant same-day results. And we're all better off by making sure all of our citizens have all the time they need to cast their ballots.

ba

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 3:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Washington's system is superior, as is any system that has as its effect the counting of more votes, rather than fewer. Jason Mercier, the enemy of democracy, isn't fooling anyone. Oregon needs to step up and do it our way.

ivan

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

ba and ivan, did you know that Oregon has higher voter turnout than Washington state?

"The Oregon approach seems to increase voter participation. During the presidential election of 2008, the voter turnout rate in Washington state was 84.6 percent. Oregon’s voter turnout that year was 85.7 percent." (http://union-bulletin.com/news/2012/nov/01/elections-should-end-on-election-day/)

You can lob bromides at Jason Mercier and Washington Policy Center to your heart's content (although it only makes you look foolish and your argument seem weaker), but this isn't some extremist idea aimed at disenfranchising people.

Diogenes

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Just because OR has higher turnout, AND it has a postmark rule, doesn't mean that OR's higher turnout is CAUSED by the postmark rule. Equating correlation with causation is a common trick to gull the ignorant.

ivan

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

...and I never claimed causation, nor am I trying to "trick" anybody. I was merely pointing out that Oregon's law has not suppressed turnout. In other words, it's not causing any disenfranchisement.

Diogenes

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Diogenes, you were quoting an article in support of the position that Oregon's vote-by-mail system "appeared to increase voter turnout".

Let's examine turnout in OR before and after they implemented statewide vote by mail in 1998 (source: http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm):

OR average turnout (all general elections, percent of eligible voters)
1980-1998: 58.2%
1990-2010: 60.1%

Round up, we'll call that a 2% increase. Fantastic. Here's Washington's turnout during the same timeframes:

WA average turnout (all general elections, percent of eligible voters)
1980-1998: 52.1%
1990-2010: 56.1%

Hm. A 4% increase - and that's without statewide vote by mail, which passed in 2011.

Perhaps we'll see a similar 2% increase here in WA now that we've also got statewide vote by mail. That would be great. But we really can't use turnout results from the two different vote by mail deadlines as a basis for comparison until *after* Washington's vote by mail system has been in effect for a while.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of vote by mail. It gives people more time to study the candidates and ballot measures, and makes last-minute attack ads less effective, to name just two advantages. The only thing better would be to make Election Day a national holiday, imho.

But Mercier is arguing that limiting the time voters have to turn in their ballots - requiring them to be in by a specific time on Election Day, rather than simply postmarked that day - is a better way.

Does he say doing so will improve voter participation? No. Does he say it will give busy parents working two jobs more time to get their ballots turned in? No. He says the problem with Washington's system is the "cynicism and distrust it unnecessarily breeds in the state's election results".

What an interesting claim. Is it just since 2011, when statewide vote-by-mail started, that such cynicism and distrust started breeding? Does Mercier cite any evidence to support his claim, at any rate? Not a whit.

Which is not a surprise. Because - as is so often the case with the Washington Policy Center - he doesn't have any. It's also incredibly ironic, because (as I mentioned earlier), the Washington Policy Center's business model is basically built to breed cynicism and distrust in our representative government.

ba

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

great diatribe ba, but it doesn't change the fact that I was merely stating that Oregon's law hasn't suppressed turnout. Most states require ballots to be due on Election Day, and it works fine. But you and your ilk are always trying to whip up a frenzy and scare people into thinking any kind of election reform that doesn't fit your ideology equals disenfranchisement. You also seem to harbor some sort of irrational hatred of the Policy Center, and you jump at any opportunity to skewer them. I suspect readers here are smart enough to see through that.

Diogenes

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Diogenes, Oregon established vote-by-mail in 1998, but voter turnout has been higher there than in Washington for 14 out of the last 16 general elections, and in every single presidential election year, going back to 1980. (See: http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm)

Moreover, Washington only established statewide vote by mail in 2011, so 2012 is the first year any legitimate comparison can be made between the two states - and it will take several elections before any trend is apparent.

That Mercier and the Washington Policy Center would plunge ahead and write a speculative piece of public policy opinion despite those facts is really not a surprise to anyone who follows their (Koch Brothers/ALEC-funded) work.

ba

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a stupid solution in search of a problem.

Explaining to a voter their ballot needs to be postmarked by a certain date is easy. It makes GTOV conversations simple. The voter is 100% in control of whether their vote is counted.

Explaining to a voter their ballots needs to be in the mail X days ahead of a certain date for it to be received in time is complicated. It makes GOTV difficult. The USPS and the vagaries of individual carriers are in control over whether a voters ballot is counted.

While I strongly prefer going to a polling place over a stretch of 4-5 days (including a weekend) as a voting method, our "postmarked by" mail-in method is superior to the "received by" Oregon method.

If candidates, their consultants,and political wonks (I am/have been two of those three) have to wait a few days, who cares?

David Miller

ddmiller

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

David, like you I would prefer going to an actual polling place. I don't see us getting back to that, though. Nuts!

Still, Oregon has higher voter turn out than we do, and as Jason's conversation with their election officials shows, they don't really get complaints that voters feel disenfranchised. So I don't think that dog will hunt anymore. Done properly, a conversion to having ballots due by election day (so that the election actually ends on election day) won't disenfranchise people. Sorry, but I get rather offended by the "but people are stupid and won't know" line of reasoning. That's profoundly anti-democratic.

You seem to think we'll all be at the mercy of the USPS. But if someone wants to fill out their ballot and vote ON election day, guess what? -- counties have ballot drop boxes (in case he wasn't able to mail it sometime in the weeks after he received it in the mail). I know, I know -- how horrible it is that a person might actually have to make an effort and leave his house for a few minutes to cast his vote. Isn't representative government such a terrible imposition?

There is a problem -- we have election week (or election month) rather than election day. Let's follow Oregon's great example and climb into the 21st century.

Diogenes

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

This was the focus of an interview on Inside Olympia last night with the Cowlitz and Pierce County Auditors: https://www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog/post/sam-reed-forecasts-what-expect-election-night

They both prefer the "definitive" nature and certainty of an 8 p.m. deadline.

The Cowlitz County's Auditor notes that due to sharing media with Oregon, very few of its ballots are received after Election Day showing that voter education on the deadline is important and effective.

jmercier

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Brings a smile to my face when a government-bashing organization like the Washington Policy Center has to start quoting the elected officials they love to vilify in order scrape up support for their policy positions.

Mr. Mercier, if changing Washington's ballot deadline to 8 p.m. is such a fantastic idea, why doesn't the Washington Policy Center get in touch with Tim Eyman and get that put on the ballot - you know, a good ol' fashioned vote of the people?

After all, if a ballot measure is good enough to limit the state's ability to raise revenue to fund education and health care, then it's good enough to limit voters' ability to be heard at the polls, amiright?

I'm sure if you "educate" enough people about why it's good for them to have less time to get their ballot turned in, they'll come around to the idea eventually.

ba

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 4:18 p.m. Inappropriate

ba, when did Jason Mercier vilify the Cowlitz County Auditor or the Pierce County Auditor? I assume you have documentation to back up your accusation...

Diogenes

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Just have a read through their blog, dude: http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog. The Washington Policy Center's basic business model is to point out every failing and shortcoming of government, while placing corporate power/interests on a 'they can do no wrong' pedestal. Unless, of course, they are speaking of elected representatives who support the WPC's positions (such as those Mercier mentions above), in which case they are held up as paragons of virtue.

ba

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

ba, you didn't answer my question. Where has Jason Mercier vilified the Cowlitz County Auditor or the Pierce County Auditor? That was your charge, and you can't back it up. You seem to have a beef with the Policy Center and Mercier, and you are painting in broad brushes. They have never said "all government is bad, all corporations are good." Not even close. And pointing me to a url isn't evidence. Your comments here indicate you are more interested in smearing them than in rational dialogue. Pity.

Diogenes

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

I've often wondered why we use the postal service at all, due to the delay and uncertainty in how long it takes for ballots to arrive. When I lived in Seattle, I always used the dropbox, knowing that I would not have to worry about how far in advance I put the ballot in.

In principle, voting in Oregon should still be easier than in states that don't use vote by mail, presuming that dropboxes are at least as common as polling sites would otherwise be. One solution might be to place a hard deadline on the postmark date, such as the Friday before election day or earlier if necessary, so that it is unambiguous for the voter and still arrives on time.

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

This should not be a partisan issue. So forget about the Washington Policy Center position. This is about good government. People are smart enough --- at least Oregon citizens are --- to know that if the ballot hasn't arrived by election day, it won't be counted. When we used neighborhood polling stations, if you didn't vote by the time the polls closed, you didn't vote. And the difference in requiring the ballot to be received by the elections office by the same time is???

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Okay Snus, if this is about good government, then please specify how adopting Oregon's requirement here in Washington will make our government better. I'm curious to hear how having less time for voters to get their ballot turned in will do that, exactly.

ba

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting that people assume this is some right-wing conspiracy because WPC is in favor. I worked for the Oregon Secretary of State, a Democrat, when WA was considering adopting vote-by-mail, and we pushed for the election day deadline for all the reasons outlined above. There has to be a deadline sometime, and for an election, election day is the deadline that makes the most sense - if people can make it to the polls by 8pm on election day, there's no reason they can't drop off their ballot by 8pm on election day.

Having ballots in by election day not only streamlines election administration for county offices and provides a faster count, it also provides that "election day" feeling that people miss about polling places. In Oregon, folks would line up at county offices and official drop-boxes to drop off their ballot, with all the TV stations and reporters there to cover it. The post office does a final sweep to make sure they deliver any ballots that are in process.

All you have to do is look at Oregon to see that it works.

GL219

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

We have a deadline here. It's the date that the election is certified.

ivan

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 3:02 p.m. Inappropriate

You make some good points, Snus, but on MondayI I mailed a letter-sized envelope to my sister who lives 5-6 miles away. Today, Friday, she still does not have it. That should hint at a serious issue. Oregon seems to be putting an unwarranted faith in the postal service and, by doing so, it puts a burden on the voter to anticipate the delivery time of a properly posted envelope. I don't like mail-in ballots but the Washington system puts the voting deadline more completely under the voter's control.

kieth

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Good government: By letting the people know the results before Thanksgiving...or later....and letting the elected officials get going on their responsibilities. Transition to the Governor's Office: By Christmas, or was that after the legislature had already convened? I suggest that this is bad government.

I am not sure how the Washington system puts the voting deadline "under the voter's control" especially if, as is suggested, the Postal Service competence is at issue. And if you do not trust the Postal Service, you could drop the ballot at a "drop box."

I believe the Secretary of State has a "match back" capability that allows the voter to see if the ballot has been counted.

And yes, there will be screw ups under the Oregon system, as there are screw ups under our system. However, I haven't seen either Oregon political party complaining and individual voter issues have been rare. If they were significant, the media would be all over them and it just hasn't happened.

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 5:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Snus, are you referring to the Rossi/Gregoire recounts - and thus delay in transition? That would have happened under either system of deadlines, the issue wasn't when ballots arrived, but the how close the vote was in the first place.

At any rate, how many times is an election that close anyway? Once in a blue moon - it's just not a good reason for limiting voters' time for all elections to come.

The Washington system keeps things more "under the voter's control" by making the deadline a postmark - which voters can ensure by delivering their ballot to a post office/postal box, not a specific time of day, which voters don't have control over.

Drop boxes are not nearly as available/accessible to voters as the Post Office is. And "match back" can happen under either system, so no advantage either way there.

And we still don't really know how Washington's system stacks up against Oregon's in terms of turnout, because there aren't any directly comparable elections to see the trend...

ba

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:56 p.m. Inappropriate

We should be voting by telephone. The system is secure, and voice printing technology could be used to verify the authenticity of votes in close races. Telephone voting would be simpler and much cheaper to operate, and the results would be in much quicker.

NotFan

Posted Sun, Nov 4, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I prefer postmark by election day because, as has been said, it is a clear deadline. I just checked my ballot status and was surprised it has not yet been received. I am nevertheless confident it will be counted because I mailed it before the postmarking date. There is no good reason to add that significant uncertainty to the process.

The complaints about the lack of finality on election day are misguided. We vote to select representatives and decide initiatives and referenda. The process should be as transparent as possible. To those who complain about the lack of election-day excitement, I suggest this is a feature. Our elections are already saturated with horse-race coverage, so anything that might reduce the focus on a finish line is welcome. The related point that this delays the formation of government is meritless. This change would advance our knowledge of the outcome by a few days at best--not by the months someone suggested.

EarlMerle

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Not everyone has a telephone, or for that matter, wants one. Unless you are suggesting the "State" should supply free Iphones to all Voters?

Ries

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