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.
Crosscut archive image.
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).

I asked Secretary Reed if he still supports changing Washington's ballot deadline to reflect the experience in Oregon. Here is his response:

“I have long supported a requirement that ballots be returned to the county elections offices, by mail or drop box, by Election Day.  Neighboring Oregon, which pioneered vote-by-mail via a citizen initiative more than a decade ago, has found that good voter education and steady reminders of the return deadline have produce excellent results.  In Washington, even with the postmark-only requirement, we get a sizable number of ballots returned too late to be counted, and that is always sad.

Every election cycle, we get numerous complaints from candidates, the parties, voters, the media and others about how long it takes to get substantially complete results, particularly in tight races. It is human nature to want to know the results once Election Night is here and the deadlines are past. People want to know who won. But in Washington, only about 60 percent of the ballots have been received and processed for tallying by Election Night. The rest are still in transit or yet to be processed and we have to wait until the end of the election week or early the following week to get substantially complete returns.

I concede that it is a difficult sell in the Legislature and it is understandable that no one wants any voter disenfranchised because of the return deadline. But it is a good change to consider in the future.  Meanwhile, I encourage our excellent county auditors and their election departments to ramp up efforts to expedite the handling and tallying of ballots. We need to improve on our technology for processing ballots – including automated signature-checking to expedite the process. Certainly, accuracy comes first, but speed and efficiency are also very important to the voters of Washington.”

According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, the vast majority of states require mail-in ballots to actually be received by Election Day. NASS reports:

  • In three states, absentee ballots must be returned prior to Election Day.
  • In 36 states, absentee ballots must be returned by Election Day.
  • In 11 states and the District of Columbia, additional time for the arrival of absentee ballots is provided after Election Day, as long as the absentee ballot is postmarked by Election Day.

Here is a summary of when mail-in ballots are due in each state.

Hopefully Washington will soon join Oregon in requiring mail-in ballots to actually be received by Election Day (exceptions could be made for military and overseas ballots as occurs in other states). In the meantime, no need to stay up late and lose sleep on November 6 hoping to learn the winner of these statistically-tied state races. There will be plenty of time to watch the vote totals change in the weeks that follow.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Washington Policy Center's blog and is reprinted with permission.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors