Oregon Vote-by-mail: why it works

Oregon pioneered Vote-by-Mail. After a few cycles, it worked so well that we made it the only way for Oregonians to vote. (Well, you can visit your county elections division and cast a ballot; I did that once when I’d move and my ballot didn’t catch up with me.) Today, the state even pays postage. After twenty-plus years, Oregonians love VBM: it’s secure, it’s convenient, it lets you cast an informed ballot, and it give us one of the highest voting rates in the county.

Here’s the deets on why Oregons Vote-by-Mail system is so incredible.

  1. Ballots “drop” 20 days prior to Election Day. Voters have time to do research, to go through the entire ballot, even to change their mind. Or vote and stick it in the mailbox the same day you receive it in the mail.
    • In the primary election, voters get a ballot that matches party registration; in the general election, everyone gets the same ballot. There is no other differentiation by party or otherwise. Absolutely non-partisan.
  2. Ballots can be mailed (and the state now pays that postage), dropped off in a public drop box that could serve as a bomb shelter, or at the public library. On Election Day, county staff are out on the street collecting ballots from voters who drive up in their cars. We do everything we can to allow everyone’s ballot to be counted.
    • Unlike California, all ballots must be received by 8pm on Election Day; postmarks do not count. However, if a voter is in line to deposit their ballot, it will be accepted.
  3. Every ballot must be signed, and every signature is verified.
    • The ballot is not signed, of course; the return envelope is what must be signed.
    • Each envelope is scanned to compare the signature with the voter’s signature on file. If the OCR cannot verify the signature, a human compares the two. If they determine there is not a match, the voter is notified and can come down to the elections division and cast a clean ballot.
  4. Once the signature is verified, the envelope is opened by volunteers who work in a secure room. Here in Portland, it’s a huge basement space surrounded by chain link fence. Ballots are removed from the envelope, opened and laid flat, and then collected for counting.
  5. Counting is done in a room that has no electronic connection of any kind. The computers in the counting room are connected to each other – and nothing else.
  6. Counting is simple: the machine scans the ballots and adds them up. Totals are fed into a “final” terminal.
    • A number of years ago, the Oregon Legislature approved “early” vote counts. That is, ballots can be run through the machines starting on the Friday before Election Day. No totals of any kind, of course, can be taken from these counts. But this means that the majority of ballots have been counted by the time “polls close”. We get results early in most cases. 
  7. Once polls have closed, results can be announced almost immediately (thanks to the early counting). This is done manually: an Elections Division staffer has to read the tally from the “totalling” computer in the isolated counting room, write it down, and then carry it out.
  8. Every ballot is saved, the ultimate paper trail. There is no “black box” or algorithms. It’s exactly the same as taking a school exam on a Scantron form. If a manual recount is needed, the actual ballot will be counted.

All of these details will vary county to county; my experience is with observing Multnomah County (Portland area). Anyone can visit the Elections Division and observe everything I’ve described. Other counties will have different set-ups but essentially the same process: signatures verified, ballots kept secure, and counts done in absolute isolation.

There have been no cases of serious fraud with VBM in Oregon. We’ve had some minor issues, but the GOP makes approximately zero claims of the kind trump is lying about. Our Republican Secretary of State is an enthusiastic supporter of the system. Voter suppression of any kind is virtually impossible.

It took a few years, but Washington and California saw our success and followed Oregon’s example. Other states are coming along. For one things, it’s a lot less expensive: no need to buy and maintain machines and software. No worries about Diebold playing games with their proprietary systems. Just a simple paper ballot that is run through a scanner.

Do people miss going to the polling place to vote? Not many. I mean, having to find a way to get to some out-of-the-way church basement on a rainy November Tuesday? That’s a system you’d devise to suppress the vote. No need to find a bunch of volunteer poll workers in the middle of a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of typical poll workers.

We’ll have 85-90% voter turn-out here in Oregon in November. We’ll have a lot of results before 8:30. And we’ll have no fraud, and almost no one not getting to vote who wants to. The Congress needs to make the Oregon VBM system mandatory for the entire nation. If Joe Biden is elected with a Democratic Congress in November, they need to make that their first priority. If they can pass such a law, then all Americans will have full access to a fair ballot.

This isn’t about Democrats winnings. This is about Americans voting – as many Americans who want to.

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