Oregon’s better way of running elections
Author: Phil Keisling
Posted: September 24, 2019

The state’s vote-by-mail system should be a national model as we approach the presidential primaries.

IN LESS than 150 days, New Hampshire voters will traipse to their polling places to cast ballots in the nation’s “always first” presidential primary election. Between that contest on February 11, 2020, and the end of March, 19 other states will also hold primary elections, including such key states as California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Arizona, Florida and Illinois.

But just how many Americans will participate in this determinative phase of the 2020 elections? In 2016, fewer than 60 million Americans cast ballots (or attended party caucuses) —and in a year when both major parties had spirited contests. At that time, there were more than 220 million eligible voters. This means almost 75% of our citizens sat it out—while the two major parties nominated the two most widely disliked presidential candidates in modern American history.

Only in New Hampshire, where 52% of eligible citizens voted, did more voters turn out than not. Oregon’s overall turnout fell just shy of New Hampshire’s due largely to our “closed primary,” which unlike New Hampshire’s makes it very difficult for our vast number of “non-affiliated” voters to cast ballots. Among Oregon’s registered Republicans and Democrats, our combined turnout was a remarkable 65%.

SO WHAT makes Oregon such a stand-out state for turnout? How might other states learn from Oregon in terms of boosting turnout in 2020 and beyond? And how might even Oregon do better?

These are important questions as we approach a consequential presidential primary election. While there are good reasons to predict higher turnout in 2020—especially on the Democratic side—there are dangers too. Bad weather—think February blizzards in New Hampshire and icy roads in key Midwest states—could play a surprisingly big factor. Photo ID laws and other legal obstacles might also play a role in depressing turnout in key contests.

 But perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is one that we Oregonians jettisoned 20 years ago: the traditional polling place itself.

 In 1998, Oregon voters by a 2:1 margin voted to consign the traditional polling place to the ash heap of history. Every active registered voter now receives a ballot in the mail, hand-delivered by the U.S. Post Office, several weeks before each election. Voters can then decide how—and even whether—to return them.

Traffic, bad weather, sick children, work schedules—none of these stand between Oregon voters and their ability to exercise the most fundamental of their constitutional rights. And the system clearly boosts turnout. The 2018 midterm elections set a new, national record. But had the rest of the country matched Oregon’s level—and Colorado was even higher—another 25 million Americans would have voted.

IN 2020, Oregon’s won’t be the only state holding a full “Vote at Home” presidential primary; joining us will be Washington, Colorado and Utah. All voters in a dozen California counties, representing more than half the population, will also enjoy such a system—as will all Hawaii voters in the 2020 general election.

While every other state can and should eventually adopt the same model, that fight will largely need to wait until state legislatures’ 2021 sessions. But meanwhile, Oregonians can encourage our out-of-state friends, relatives and colleagues to use “Vote at Home” ballots (aka “absentee ballots”) during the 2020 primary election cycle and beyond.

That will be hardest in the 18 states—including Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Virginia and Texas—that still require a legally valid excuse (e.g., an “absence” from one’s home county) to receive a mailed-out ballot. But in the remaining 28 states, obtaining a “Vote at Home” ballot is as simple as merely asking for one.

Many of the “no excuse” states also happen to be among the top battleground states in 2020, including Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada. And what better time to introduce voters to this somewhat foreign concept: “What, I can make the polling place come to me, rather than having to go to it?”

AS EXPERIENCE in Oregon proved, even fiercely resistant voters have come to quickly embrace this system—much like the main character in that famous Dr. Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham. We can certainly further improve Oregon’s system. Colorado, for example, has far more full-service “Vote Centers” where voters can go to update their registration or get other assistance up through Election Day. Still, after 20 years and more than 200 million mailed out ballots, the system has produced no meaningful fraud—and lots of voters who feel they have the time and means to cast a more informed ballot.

When more voters participate in a primary election, they’re a lot more likely to vote in the November general election. Just 60% of eligible voters actually cast ballots in 2016. Regardless of which candidate prevails, wouldn’t 70% or even 80% turnout in 2020 be healthier for our small-d democracy?

Phil Keisling championed the state’s vote-by-mail system when he was Oregon Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999. He recently retired as director of the PSU Center for Public Service, but he remains a senior fellow of the center. Today, Keisling works for the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Vote at Home Institute, which he helped found. The institute is dedicated to ensuring the security of elections and putting voters’ needs first.