May 5, 2010
Secretary of State Kate Brown
Statement by Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown to Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Senate Rules Committee this morning about Oregon’s vote-by-mail system.
I want to start by commending all of you on your efforts to discuss the merits of vote-by-mail, which has become a part of our political DNA in Oregon. I strongly believe that nothing we do is more important than making sure that voters have confidence that we are providing them with a world-class infrastructure for their democracy. Elections are the means by which the public grants government the power to make decisions that affect their lives. If the public loses confidence in the elections process, it can quickly lose confidence in the legitimacy of government itself.
We have now had over a decade of experience with vote-by-mail in Oregon. In 1998, 70 percent of voters approved a citizen initiative, making us a full vote-by-mail State. That means that few voters under the age of 30 have ever been in an Oregon voting booth.
In that decade we have seen the benefits of the system. I would like to highlight just a few of the ways that vote-by-mail has improved our elections experience.
Firstly, we have found that it increases turnout. The average turnout in the past three presidential elections, all of which were completely vote-by-mail elections – 2000, 2004 and 2008 – is a full 6 percentage points higher than that of the final three elections conducted in the polling place. In fact, 2008 and 2004 were banner years, ranking second and third highest in voter turnout in the history of the State.
It’s not just State records we’re after; 2008 also saw us place third nationally for voter turnout. What’s more, turnout was especially high in our rural counties nearly all of which were above the state average. In fact, every one of our 36 counties saw turnout above 80 percent, with one surpassing the 90 percent threshold.
We think we’re trending in the right direction when it comes to turnout and we know that vote-by-mail is a big part of that positive trend.
Secondly, it cuts costs.
The cost of the 1998 general election --the final election that utilized polling places-- was $1.81 per voter. By comparison, the cost of our most recent Special Election in January was $1.05 per voter, and that’s not accounting for inflation. These are real savings at a time when states across the nation are facing structural budget deficits.
And thirdly, it’s secure.
The security of our democratic process has always been and must remain of the utmost importance. The vote-by-mail system does not sacrifice security for accessibility. Elections staff compare every signature, on every ballot, with the signature on the voter’s registration card before the ballot can be counted. Each specialist responsible for checking signatures undergoes intensive training by the same company that trains the Oregon State Police in signature identification.
If a signature doesn’t appear to match, the ballot is set aside and the voter is called and asked why. Sometimes there is a perfectly good reason; people’s signatures do change a little with age or as the result of an injury. Sometimes the reason is unacceptable. In any case, fraud gets caught before the vote is counted.
We also ensure that even attempting fraud is deterred with a harsh penalty scheme. Before sending a ballot in by mail, potential voters must swear that the information they provide is true. Forging a signature or lying about qualifications - such as age, residency or citizenship - is a class C felony and can mean a $125,000 fine, five years in prison or, when relevant, deportation.
Since 2000, we’ve investigated thousands upon thousands of fraud complaints. They have led to exactly nine criminal prosecutions. We take this seriously. Vote fraud is a fel0ny and the state has levied fines, sent people to prison and seen through deportations. Nine cases of fraud out of more than 15 million mail ballots cast in the last ten years is certainly not evidence of systemic, large-scale fraud.
We are proud of our vote-by-mail system and are encouraged by the Congress’ willingness to discuss its merits. However, as excited as I am by the prospect of vote-by-mail going national, I know I have to temper my excitement in light of the long path we took towards fully implementing the system. In fact, it took 19 years, from the first local vote-by-mail election in 1981 to the first full general election conducted entirely by mail in the year 2000.
Other states may not have to take that long, but there’s great wisdom in letting it develop slowly and carefully. It would be a mistake for any state to change voting procedures too quickly. Our slow transition allowed voters and the elections workers to get used to the new system.
In 1981, the Legislature approved mail voting as a pilot project only. One of my predecessors as Secretary of State, Norma Paulus, a Republican, was Oregon’s first major proponent of vote-by-mail. It was optional and was reserved for local races. County clerks could decide for themselves whether or not to hold the park district or library district election by mail.
In those early days, we also allowed voters to sign up as permanent, no-excuse absentee voters. This process gave those interested the opportunity to sign up once to receive their ballots by mail for all future elections. Our county elections offices eventually found that more than half of the ballots received were being cast ‘absentee,’ by mail. In practice, our counties were holding two elections at once: one at the polling place and one by mail. It was complicated and increasingly expensive. However, it was also instructive. Voters were sending a message and the message was clear: they liked voting by mail.
Even as the voting booth was still used throughout the 1980s for statewide primaries and general elections, increasingly, our local races for school boards and city councils were conducted entirely by mail.
It wasn’t until June of 1993 that we held our first statewide election entirely by mail. During that election, a ballot measure was put to voters by the Legislature to approve the repayment of urban renewal district bonds. Not the most exciting ballot measure in our State’s history, but it did serve to showcase vote-by-mail and had a 39 percent turnout, hardly a number to scoff at for a measure of that type. Vote-by-mail really came of age in 1996 with the election to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. It was the first time we used vote-by-mail for a statewide election featuring a Federal race and it drew considerable attention. Turnout was a very healthy 66 percent as current Senator Ron Wyden was sent to Washington.
Finally, the transition to vote-by-mail was completed in 1998, when a ballot initiative was passed by the citizens of Oregon. It required our elections officials to use vote-by-mail for each and every election: from the smallest park district race, to the general election.
One typical knock I hear on vote-by-mail is that voters miss out on the shared experience of voting amongst their neighbors; going to the school gymnasium or to the church, or the neighborhood firehouse for this common rite of citizenship. And it’s true; in Oregon, voters no longer take part in that time-honored ritual. However, we have replaced one civic ritual with another. With vote-by-mail, a family can sit around the kitchen table, talk about the issues surrounding a ballot initiative, or the merits of candidates, and make their decision right then and there. Voters often tell me how now they can give more thought to filling out the ballot. They also like not having to stand in long lines at the polling place.
If Oregon’s experience is any indication, vote-by-mail has the potential to affect our country’s elections for the better. I would like to once again to thank Senator Schumer and the Committee for giving me the opportunity to share Oregon’s vote-by-mail experience.
For more information, please contact:
Director of Communications