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Oregonian Guest Opinion: Remembering Oregon's true 'father' of vote by mail
Author: Phil Keisling, Hatfield School of Government
Posted: September 11, 2018

Read the original article on OregonLive.

Del Riley isn't a household name among Oregon citizens, but he certainly deserves to be. Almost four decades ago, Riley sparked a revolution in participatory democracy. His leadership is especially important to acknowledge now, as we celebrate the 20th birthday of the law Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved in 1998: to mail every voter their ballot in the mail for every election -- and then let us return them (or not).

Riley was the Linn County Clerk when he and a few others started asking a somewhat heretical question. If the county was already required to print and distribute "sample ballots" before each election -- a practice still common in many U.S. states -- why couldn't they just skip all that expense and print and distribute actual ballots instead?

In the spring of 1981, Riley joined then-Secretary of State Norma Paulus and a bipartisan group of legislators to observe an all mail-ballot election in San Diego, Calif. Riley returned from that trip to eager to run Oregon's first-ever "Vote by Mail" election. Riley's advocacy, along with Secretary Paulus' leadership, convinced the 1981 Legislature to pass a two-year trial for the idea. 

Riley and his team got to work, meeting with U.S. Postal Service officials to coordinate logistics and inform citizens that their traditional polling places would be shuttered for this election. More than 25,000 ballots were mailed out. Riley outwardly was confident, assuring reporters "it's going to sail along like clockwork." But his colleagues understood keenly the tremendous risk he was taking. As an elected official -- and a registered Democrat in a county that was increasingly trending Republican -- any snafus or even a whiff of problems might have made this a career-ending move.

Riley's faith was rewarded when the ballots started to stream in, eventually reaching a turnout of more than 75 percent of those received by voters. And remember: This was a special election in an odd-numbered year, not a midterm -- much less a presidential election.

But as often is the case, the path to election reform would not be immediate, or even proceed in a straight line. Not until the 1985-86 cycle did more than a handful of counties embrace the idea. And despite the advocacy of Riley and fellow county clerks, it wasn't until the wee morning hours of the 1995 session's last day that the Oregon Legislature passed a bill to allow any election to be conducted that way.

Even then, celebration quickly turned to despair. Then Gov. John Kitzhaber decided to veto the bill, encouraged by the Democratic National Committee, along with prominent Republicans including future U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith and State Sen. Randy Miller (who was also the vetoed bill's chief sponsor!). It took until 1998 with a push from a successful, all-volunteer ballot initiative effort to overwhelmingly enshrine the idea in Oregon law.

Over these 20 years, Oregon voters have received more than 100 million "vote at home" ballots. Meanwhile, the various objections and "bogey-persons" that have been throw up to block this reform -- rampant fraud, coercion, confusion, loss of civic tradition -- have all proven imaginary or utterly inconsequential.

Far more real has been the higher voter turnout spurred by the simple practice of delivering a ballot to every voter. In the 2014 midterm, for example, Oregon turned out 71 percent of its active registered voters, in an election many considered one of the dullest in recent memory. The national average that year was just 48 percent, based on data from the Election Assistance Commission. That's not to mention the tens of millions of tax dollars we've saved -- a benefit valued by Riley and his Linn county colleagues also foresaw when they started this revolution nearly 40 years ago. 

Recently, some colleagues and I launched a national effort -- the National Vote at Home Institute, www.voteathome.org -- to convince other states to follow Oregon's lead. Washington and Colorado already have, while in Utah, 27 of 29 counties now use this system.

At times during the last 25 years, I've sometimes been introduced as the "father" of vote-by-mail. While I'm certainly proud of the chance I had as Oregon Secretary of State to push for this reform, I always wince at the accolade, because it's undeserved. Among Secretaries of State, Norma Paulus far more deserves parental billing in this reform; I played more the role of a midwife, helping expand the idea to all elections.

But there is actually a true father of vote-by-mail, and it's Del Riley. Last month, Riley passed away at the age of 93. But just before his death, I had the privilege to visit with him and his family and to thank him -- as all of us should -- for having the vision and courage to pioneer this innovation in democracy.

-- Phil Keisling is director of the Center for Public Service in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. He served as Oregon's secretary of state from 1991 to 1999.