Coming from a state where voters know their May 19 primary election will not be disrupted by the spread of COVID-19 because it is done by mail, it’s no surprise that Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden are pushing to adopt the same voting process across the nation.
They are joined by voting security advocates who are sounding the alarm about a shrinking window for the United States to prepare for a November presidential election taking place during a global pandemic.
Primary elections in some states have been pushed back, or as was the case in Wisconsin this week held despite a national call for social distancing efforts.
“You’re facing such an unprecedented pandemic, that makes it dangerous for people to congregate, certainly dangerous for people to vote in crowded polling places,” said Sen. Merkley in an interview with The Register-Guard. “This is a moment where every citizen, in order to have the fundamental right to vote the very foundation of our democratic republic needs to have the option of casting a ballot by mail.”
Merkley and Wyden joined 24 other Democratic senators March 18 to introduced a bill to expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. The Oregon senators say this push is essentially an expansion of the absentee voting that many states already have.
A total of 34 states already allow voters to vote absentee without an excuse. Oregon is just one of five states that conducts universal, all-mail elections where all registered voters are mailed ballots. The others are Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington.
But there’s been little action among the 16 states that provide absentee ballots only to voters who meet certain criteria even though some governors of the states back expanded vote-by-mail. Other Republican governors and state election officials flatly oppose sweeping changes.
To make vote-by-mail available nationally would cost billions across all 50 states and would need to happen fast in order to set up the infrastructure across states. It is part of Democrats’ proposal for the next coronavirus stimulus bill. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it would be premature to discuss what would go in that legislation while the country still implements the $2.2 trillion package that passed last month.
“We’re getting to a do-or-die moment to be able to make the changes that are necessary for a credible election in November,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law.
Oregon’s history with mail voting
Oregon was the first state to move exclusively to a vote-by-mail process. Voters approved it in 1998, and it took several years for the change to even take effect in November 2000.
When it was first raised in Oregon, Wyden said the initiative was backed by Republicans, but state Democrats were opposed. Then, once it was instated, the views flipped.
Voter turnout in Oregon’s general elections after moving to vote-by-mail is comparable to what it was before, ranging between 60% and 80% since 1960, with presidential election years yielding the highest turnout.
While Democrats also say it is less costly than in-person voting, secretary of state data shows the cost per voter in Oregon has gone up from $1.62 in the 1992 November election to as high as $2.22 in 2008. The cost per voter for May primaries has stayed relatively steady since 1992.
However, in the years after vote-by-mail was approved, more people registered to vote and turnout for special elections went up slightly over years past.
A national vote-by-mail system has been floated before, but right now Democrats feel real urgency to get this in place due to COVID-19.
“How do you argue a time like this in a pandemic that you’re just going to sit and allow what we saw on television in Wisconsin this week?” Wyden said, referring to the long lines of people including the elderly and at-risk who turned out to vote at the limited polling sites. “This is a prescription for trouble.”
Concerns, challenges to the initiative
Wyden said the biggest challenge Democrats have right now to getting a national vote-by-mail process is Republican opposition. This week, President Trump called vote-by-mail “horrible” and “corrupt,” despite the fact that many people, including those in the military and Trump himself, already do absentee voting.
John Large, the chair of the Lane County Republicans, said Oregon is in a good position for voting during the pandemic because it is already a vote-by-mail state, but he believes it still should be decided by voters in each state.
“I voted against voting by mail many years ago,” Large said, because if people want to vote, they shouldn’t be “too lazy to get up off their duff.”
But Oregon’s measure passed in 1998 with 69% of the vote, which is how Large said it should be done.
“It’s a state to state issue,” he said. “Even though the federal government says what they would like, it’s still a state issue.”
Another of Large’s concerns also voiced by other Republicans on the national stage is that vote-by-mail allows for more voter fraud because people are able to simply register and vote at home.
But this is not necessarily true. According to data from The Heritage Foundation, Oregon has only had 15 cases of voter fraud since 2000, the majority of which were from duplicate voting where someone accidentally or knowingly voted in two states.
Compare this to Mississippi or Minnesota, which have about the same number of voters as Oregon and in-person voting: Mississippi had 29 cases of voter fraud since 2000, and Minnesota had 130 cases of voter fraud just since 2009.
“We have a rigorous system of protecting the integrity of the vote, starting with the fact that when you sign the back of the envelope where you put your ballot in, that signature is compared to signatures that they already have,” Wyden said. “We have forensic specialists. It’s all done in a bipartisan way, out in the open.”
Wyden said Oregon has strict consequences for those who mess with ballots, using the example of a poll worker who tampered with two ballots and was jailed for 90 days, paid a fine of more than $13,000 and was not allowed to work an election again.
Further, Wyden said past iterations of legislation pushing for national vote-by-mail were shot down because it was previously much more difficult to get an absentee ballot, as it required an excuse. But the majority of states have moved away from that.
“My view is, this is no longer about reinventing the wheel,” Wyden said. “This is about building on what we’re already doing … . What we’re talking about is really up-scaling what’s already going on the trend that’s already underway.”
Detractors don’t agree that it will be that easy to transition to mail voting, citing issues such as not having high absentee ballot rates.
“Tennesseans are in the habit of voting in person,” spokeswoman Julia Bruck said, noting that only 2% of registered Tennessee voters typically cast absentee voters despite 30% being eligible.
But Bruck cited conversations with election officials from Washington state — one of the five all-mail states — who relayed that at least five years is needed for states to transition to all-mail voting if they don’t have 60% of voters currently voting by mail.
Washington’s secretary of state, Republican Kim Wyman was one of nine secretaries of state who joined Senate Democrats on a teleconference last week to discuss voting during the pandemic.
“There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the the 2020 election,” Wyman said, adding that as states expand absentee voting they must build in the capacity. “You’ve got to have the high-speed sorters. You have to have the relationship with the post office.”
Merkley said he has seen many attempts to suppress voters for the benefit of either party, and that this is the best way to ensure everybody, regardless of party, has a chance to vote.
“You don’t take away people’s right to participate or ask them to weigh the choice of getting exposed to a dangerous disease versus voting,” Merkley said. “No, you solve the problem with vote-by-mail.”