Oregon Has Been Voting By Mail For Decades. Now It Will Save Lives.

Gov. Kate Brown was "horrified" that Wisconsin voters had to risk getting COVID-19 to vote and wants to help other states avoid this in November.

WASHINGTON ― Imagine that voting for president was so easy you could do it from your couch, in the same clothes you’ve been wearing for days because you’re in the middle of a pandemic and you’ve kind of let yourself go, in between back-to-back episodes of the best show on television, “Love Is Blind.”

Imagine that it could save your life, too.

Why wouldn’t you do this?

You can do this in Oregon, which has been conducting all of its statewide elections entirely by mail since 1998. The process is simple. It’s secure. And it means residents don’t have to worry about leaving their houses and risk getting the coronavirus in order to vote. They don’t even have to worry about putting a stamp on their ballots; Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed a law last year that requires the state to pay for ballot postage.

This is a far safer system than what Wisconsin just put its voters through. Last month, the Republican-led state Legislature refused to agree to the Democratic governor’s request to mail absentee ballots to all voters or move the state’s April 7 primary to June. When the governor issued an executive order pushing back the date, the state Supreme Court, also controlled by conservatives, overturned it. The resulting election was “the most undemocratic in the state’s history,” as Wisconsin’s largest newspaper put it: mask-wearing residents had to wait in long lines for hours at limited voting sites.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at the Axios News Shapers event on the U.S. education system on Feb. 22, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at the Axios News Shapers event on the U.S. education system on Feb. 22, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Shannon Finney via Getty Images

As of Thursday, 52 people who worked at polling stations or voted in the Wisconsin election have tested positive for COVID-19.

“I was horrified by what happened in Wisconsin,” Brown said in an interview late last month. “That folks should have to risk their health or their lives to vote is absolutely outrageous in this country.”

There are so many benefits to Oregon’s vote-by-mail system that it’s a wonder why other states haven’t already made mail-in voting an option for every voter, never mind during a public health emergency. The system is simple: Ballots are mailed to all registered voters’ addresses three weeks before each election, along with a pamphlet of information on candidates and issues. Voters mark them, sign them and drop them in a mailbox. Election officials verify every signature ― clerks are trained in forensics and will contact you if your signature doesn’t match ― and tally the results, which are easy to reproduce for recounts. They’re also hard to manipulate, which reduces the risk of foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“You can’t hack paper,” said the governor. “You can replicate and verify the results.”

It’s also cost-effective. Brown said while her state still operates some polling stations, its vote-by-mail elections cost 20% to 30% less than in-person voting because of reduced costs from staffing polling stations and ballot counting systems. Beyond that, Oregon has one of the highest voter participation rates in the country.

“That folks should have to risk their health or their lives to vote is absolutely outrageous in this country.”

- Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Four other states conduct their elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington. But every state anticipates a surge in mailed ballots this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with anywhere from a doubling of vote-by-mail rates to a nearly 100% replacement of in-person voting. Brown said she’s been working with governors in Democratic and Republican states who have expressed interest in using mail-in voting this year. They essentially need to tweak and expand their absentee voting systems.

Asked which GOP governors have shown interest, Brown said South Dakota and Nebraska state officials “are actually very serious” about it.

“My team and I are very, very willing to assist governors that want to move in this direction, that literally ... want to make sure they actually keep people healthy and save lives,” she said.

President Donald Trump last month went on a tirade about voting by mail, falsely claiming in White House briefings and on Twitter that statewide mail-in voting is “corrupt” and has “tremendous potential for voter fraud.”

Trump, of course, voted by mail in the Florida primary in March. He also voted absentee in New York in the 2018 election. Asked at a White House press briefing in April how he reconciles his criticisms of mail-in voting with the fact that he does it himself, he said, “Because I’m allowed to.”

His claim that voting by mail “doesn’t work out well for Republicans” isn’t necessarily true, either. But his new attacks on expanded voting options echo Republicans’ decades-long campaign to impose voting restrictions that disproportionately affect certain groups of people ― namely people of color, the economically disadvantaged and young people ― by saying the restrictions are necessary to combat voter fraud, which is incredibly rare. Democrats have more core supporters in disenfranchised communities, and the conventional wisdom, at least, is that easier voting measures will help Democrats.

Brown said it makes her blood boil to hear Trump’s fearmongering about voter fraud when it is “virtually nonexistent.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” she said. “We should be making it easy for everyone to exercise their fundamental rights.”

The president’s complaints about mail-in voting come at a time when he seems willing to let the U.S. Postal Service fail. The independent agency predicts it will run out of money in late summer or early fall because of the drop in mail volume due to the pandemic. It has asked Congress for $75 billion in aid to stay afloat.

Trump responded by calling the Postal Service “a joke” and said he wouldn’t approve any federal relief unless it dramatically increases its prices.

Without a functioning Postal Service this fall, states risk not being able to deliver ballots by mail in a timely manner and voters risk delays in returning their completed ballots. As HuffPost’s Paul Blumenthal reported, the nation’s ability to hold fair and free elections would be threatened, as would millions of Americans who would be forced to go to the polls during a pandemic if they wanted to vote. As it stands, a significant number of voters already rely on the Postal Service for voting. Thirty-three million Americans voted by mail in the 2016 election, using either absentee, military or mail-in ballots.

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) are currently pushing a bill, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, that would ensure voters in every state have the option to request absentee ballots and have 20 days of early voting. It would provide $3 million to the Election Assistance Commission to begin implementing some of the bill’s requirements and reimburse states for doing the same.

Brown said it is crucial that Congress give money to states this year to help make mail-in voting available to all voters. Not only will it save lives, she said, but it will ensure that people’s most fundamental right to vote isn’t eroded because of a pandemic.

“Literally, you know this is all about power, right?” said the governor. “This is about power.”

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