Oregon's Vote-By-Mail Fails To Fulfill Its Promise by Melody Rose

© 2002 The Oregonian, Oregon Live


Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.


| EJF Home | Where To Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |


| Vote Fraud and Election Issues Book | Table of Contents | Site Map | Index |


| Chapter 5 — Lies, Damn Lies, and Mail In Elections |

| Next — Oregon's Comedy Of Errors by Thomas Hargrove |

| Back — Voting Fraud In South Dakota |


October 20, 2002 — That vote-by-mail ballot headed your way is quite a performer — a cost saver and turnout-enhancer, or so the politicians tell you. The trouble is, that's not true.

It's high time you're told the real story about vote-by-mail. This much-lauded convenient way of voting has failed to deliver on its chief promise: significantly increase voter turnout. The percentages look terrific — 80 percent participation during the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential race or an unofficial 44 percent for the state's September special election.

These numbers, well above national averages, are typically cited as evidence of vote-by-mail's success in delivering higher turn-outs. But the method used to produce those impressive percentages counts only registered voters, not all eligible voters. There's a big difference.

Tested for a decade in primary and special elections, mail-in voting will be used exclusively for only the second time in a general election next month. Has this system really delivered on its promises? Has Oregon's experiment with vote-by-mail truly succeeded?

Here's where the confusion begins. Oregon measures turnout as a percentage of those registered to vote. And those who register, vote. But political scientists measure turnout as a percentage of those eligible to vote. Using this figure, we capture a more accurate picture of voting participation. Turnout in Oregon looks much more like that of states with old-fashioned voting booths. Using U.S. Census estimates about Oregon's voting-eligible population, 62 percent of eligible Oregonians voted in November 2000, while a mere 32 percent bothered to last month.

Sure, these adjusted turnout figures are still above national averages, but they're lackluster. Who can forget the 2000 election for president? Predictions called for a tight race; voters knew the stakes were high. Those dynamics should have prodded more Oregonians to vote, especially with the added convenience of marking their ballot at home.

September's special election also marked an important political moment. With the state in fiscal crisis, and two landmark measures on the ballot, vote-by-mail should have delivered a stellar performance.

Scholars are divided on whether mail-in voting increases turnout. But the most recent research suggests mail-in voting boosts turnout only among those demographic groups likely to vote anyway. Its success hangs largely on how well a state trains its citizens to use the system.

As for the often touted savings, we have no evidence vote-by-mail saves money — that largely depends on how "costs" are defined. Expenses have shifted from the state to the voter, who must pay for increasingly expensive stamps to deliver the ballot. What's more, the state pays to mail ballots to all registered voters whether or not they use them. Fraud still a problem The costs of vote-by-mail could go well beyond the pocket book. Despite the best efforts of election officials, vote-by-mail brings a perpetual risk of systemic fraud. Texas officials have begun documenting ballot selling and theft. Although Oregon has not had to battle fraud, I'm convinced that will happen sooner or later. Human nature hasn't changed fundamentally since the 19 th century when we didn't have the secrecy of the voting booth to prevent widespread voter corruption. Here are some likely scenarios:

Ballots will be stolen from mailboxes, as they are in Texas. Third-party ballot collectors, who register with the state and agree to deliver your ballot to an official site, will throw away whole groups of ballots based on voters' sex, perceived political leanings or race.

Ballots mailed to senior citizen's homes will be systematically stolen, destroyed or sold. Spouses will begin throwing away or fraudulently signing each others' ballots. "Get out the vote" efforts will take on new meaning in Oregon. Sense of community goes, too. Beyond inviting fraud, there is a symbolic cost to voting from home. Voting the traditional way — at the firehouse, local library or school — reminds us of our commonality, that we live in a community. When we dig our ballot out from the junk-mail and credit-card offers, only to vote while watching the latest rendition of "Survivor," we cheapen the process and deprive ourselves of a simple reminder of our collective responsibility.

It may be sentimental and old-fashioned, but the pancake breakfast model of elections does more to inspire participation than mail-in balloting ever will.

Timing is another big issue. When you turn in your ballot weeks before election day, you make significant decisions prematurely. The most crucial and revealing phase of any election is in the last weeks — even days, research has shown. Mail-in voting forces candidates to inundate us with elections materials for an even longer period, likely resulting in more expensive campaigns. And you'll inevitably see local TV stations conducting "exit polls" and reporting on "results" weeks before election day. Given all of these problems, vote-by-mail might actually dampen civic participation, not improve it. Voters already had the right If you think all these risks are too apocalyptic and still prefer voting by mail because of its convenience, consider this: Prior to adopting universal vote-by-mail, Oregon had the most lenient absentee voter law in the country.

Anyone who needed or wanted to vote-by-mail could register as a permanent absentee voter. This law upheld the rights and wishes of those who needed to vote away from home. Vote-by-mail wasn't even necessary.

When this method was proposed, it was staged as a bold, innovative and practical idea that would surely add convenience and increase turnout. Without a doubt, we need creative solutions to strengthen the integrity of modern elections and inspire greater civic participation.

Unfortunately, vote-by-mail is a gimmicky, pale imitation of genuine voting reform; it does nothing to address the root causes of low turnout. Despite the hard work and thoughtful implementation of Oregon's election officials, vote-by-mail adds significant risk to electoral integrity.

Low turnout doesn't result from a lack of convenience; it's the result of widespread disengagement with politics and the electoral process, particularly among the young and poor. True reform needs to increase the perceived importance and relevance of voting, not diminish it.

While we wait for more profound electoral reform, there are ways to protect your vote. If you don't have your ballot by Wednesday, call your county elections office. If you are able, vote on election day, after you have all of the information available about candidates and measures.

Don't answer pollsters' questions about your vote. Vote in private. Either take your ballot to your county board of elections or to an official, designated ballot drop-off site. If you mail your ballot, call your county board of elections to verify it was received.

After you vote, think about the need for change. Oregonians deserve a state-of-the-art election system that protects each vote and draws every voter into the system. Finally, don't believe those turnout numbers Nov. 6.



| EJF Home | Where To Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |


| Vote Fraud and Election Issues Book | Table of Contents | Site Map | Index |


| Chapter 5 — Lies, Damn Lies, and Mail In Elections |

| Next — Oregon's Comedy Of Errors by Thomas Hargrove |

| Back — Voting Fraud In South Dakota |


Last modified 6/14/09