Oregon, with slightly more than two million registered voters, is the only state with all-mail voting. All elections in Oregon are vote by mail. The only reason that we Oregonians have this system is that voters here insisted upon it, and took the initiative to make it happen.
An abridged history
Oregon began experimenting with mail in voting in 1981, when the state legislature approved a test of vote by mail for certain local elections. By 1987, a majority of Oregon counties were conducting all-mail elections for local races and ballot measures, primarily because of the reduced costs. In January 1996, Oregon became the first state to conduct a general election to fill a vacancy in a federal office totally by mail, when voters elected Senator Ron Wyden to replace Bob Packwood, who had resigned in disgrace. That was the first federal election in the nation to be conducted entirely by mail. The turnout was 66 percent.
In the spring and summer of 1997, the Oregon House of Representatives approved a proposal to make primary and general elections vote by mail, but the bill died in a Senate committee. In the primary election in May of 1998, Oregon became the first state to have more ballots cast by mail than at the polls during a polling place election. Absentee voter turnout was 53 percent, compared to a turnout at the polls of 22 percent. The following month, June 1998, The League of Women Voters provided the leadership for supporters of vote by mail primary and general elections, and they used Oregon's initiative and referendum system to put the issue on the November general election ballot. No paid signature gatherers were used to put the measure on the ballot; it was all volunteer labor. In the election of November 3, 1998, Oregon voters decided to expand vote by mail to primary and general elections by a vote of 757,204 to 334,021. That's 69.4% for, and 30.6% against. [note 1]
Five years later, a study done by University of Oregon political scientist, Priscilla L. Southwell, showed that the system was growing in popularity, and confirmed that Oregonians overwhelmingly prefer voting by mail (80.9%) over precinct voting (19.1%). [note 2]
Why we love it so
The reasons for the Oregon system's popularity with the voters are not difficult to understand. It is far more convenient to vote at your own kitchen table than to go to a local precinct and stand in line to vote. Everyone can fit voting into their schedule no matter how busy they are. Voters have at least two weeks to vote, and that allows plenty of time to study the voters' pamphlet, and to research and discuss the issues. Another big advantage to voters is that they do not have to be physically present on that one day designated as Election Day. The study cited above showed that women with small children, the disabled, young people on the go, and retirees, are all more likely to vote by mail than at a precinct.
Election supervisors like it because mail in voting actually improves voter turnout. In the 2004 election, almost 87% of Oregon's registered voters cast ballots. The study cited above also showed that neither of the two major parties gained an advantage from mail in voting. Mail-in balloting allows for centralized supervision and control of ballot processing in county elections offices, and permits election officials to maintain uniformity of standards, and strict compliance with law throughout the state.
Taxpayers have good reason to like the system, too. The cost of conducting all-mail elections is one-third to one-half the cost of polling place elections. For example, the May 1994 polling place election cost Oregon taxpayers $4.33 per ballot. The May 1995 vote by mail election cost only $1.24 per ballot. [note 3] The reason is obvious: Oregon does not have to recruit, hire, train, and supervise thousands of precinct workers.
In addition to being more convenient for the voters, advantageous to election officials, and much cheaper for the taxpayers, mail in voting offers greater security over ballots, and guarantees the integrity of the ballot count. Oregon does not suffer from the hassles of understaffed, relocated, or closed precincts, or battles over provisional ballots, recalcitrant, too few, or missing voting machines. Best of all, with mail in balloting, massive voter fraud is virtually impossible. There are no easily hacked touch screen voting machines, and there is a permanent paper trail.
How the Oregon system works
Voter lists are kept rigorously up to date in each county's election office. County elections officials using obituary notices expunge the voter registrations of the recently deceased. There is no tombstone voting in Oregon. The Post Office does not forward ballots, so when voters move to a new address they must re-register to vote. The ballots returned by the Post Office permit election offices to have accurate and updated voter rolls without the risk of partisan purges.
The Secretary of State's Elections Division, and the county elections offices, produce voters' pamphlets before every election. Voters receive their voters' pamphlets about three weeks before each election. The state's voters' pamphlet is mailed to every household in Oregon.
The ballot packet is mailed out 18 to 14 days before election day. There are three envelopes with each ballot. The first envelope gets the ballot to the voter, and the other two are returned with the ballot.
After voters fill out their ballots, they place them in a secrecy envelope and seal it. Then they place the secrecy envelope in the ballot return envelope and seal that. Each voter's name and address is printed on the back of the ballot return envelope by the elections office, and voters must sign the back of their personalized return envelope in order for the ballot to be counted. Every voter must sign their own ballot return envelope. Signing another person 's name is illegal.
Besides mailing them in, ballots can be returned using two other methods. Anyone who wishes can still vote in person. Each county elections office provides privacy booths for voters who want to vote in person, or need assistance. But, relatively very few Oregonians vote in this manner. Voters can save the price of first class mail by dropping their sealed ballots in locked drop boxes, which are conveniently located in public buildings, such as a city hall or a county library, in every community. Locked and sealed drop boxes are delivered by an election official every morning at 8 a.m. During the day, the boxes are chained in place, and always in full view of city or county employees who are sworn members of the county's election board. The drop boxes are picked up every evening at 5 p.m. by an election official, who signs for the box, and records the time in front of a witness. The election official then has a set amount of time to get the box back to the elections office, where election officials, break the seal, and count the envelopes which then are placed in boxes that are sealed and signed, and placed in a locked and sealed safe room for the night.