TOPICS > Politics

Mail Order Voting

January 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

RON WYDEN: No one, Democrat or Republican, has ever before you questioned my honesty, my integrity, and my ethics. You’re the very first.

GORDON SMITH: After 15 years, wouldn’t you agree that you’re Exhibit A in a case for term limits for career politicians?

LEE HOCHBERG: The Oregon Senate race has been a slug fest. Liberal Democratic Congress Ron Wyden, a long-time advocate for consumers and the elderly, and conservative Republican State Senator Gordon Smith, a multi-millionaire owner of a frozen factory. Wyden’s TV spots blast Smith as a Newt Gingrich-like extremist.

COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: (Wyden Ad) Gordon Smith is a follower of the revolution of the right catechism of Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gordon Smith and Newt Gingrich, they’re going to extremes.

LEE HOCHBERG: Smith, for his part, hammers Wyden’s liberal voting record.

ANNOUNCER: (Smith Ad) So why’s Ron Wyden so out of touch with Oregonians? Is it because he’s been in Washington too long, or has he become so liberal he’s forgotten what’s important to Oregon?

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s the kind of nasty campaign often blamed for alienating voters. Ironically, it’s coming in a controversial experimental election that Oregon officials had hoped would enfranchise more voters. The state is conducting the election by mail. Almost 2 million Oregon voters received ballots two weeks ago. They have until January 30th to mark them and mail them back. Election officials say mailing ballots will be easier for voters than going to the ballot box.

PHIL KEISLING, Oregon Secretary of State: The way that we vote, I believe, is part of what is failing to engage people right now.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon’s Secretary of State, Phil Keisling, says the traditional ballot box election is partly to blame for the nation’s meager 38 percent turnout in the 1994 election.

PHIL KEISLING: You know, in today’s world, where more and more people are working full-time, both parents working, having to do the kinds of things necessary to keep up an economy that’s changing very profoundly, good intentions on election day of highly-motivated voters can often fall victim to a sick child, soccer practice, having to work late, being called out of town, something unexpected.

LEE HOCHBERG: Other states are watching Oregon’s experiment and say they’ll try mail-in elections too if it boosts voter participation and saves the state money, as Keisling has promised. In last month’s Senate primary, the first election for national office ever conducted by mail, 58 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. That’s a primary record. But critics of vote-by-mail say it will make political campaigns more expensive. Both Oregon Senate candidates, for example, say they’ve been forced to saturate the airwaves with more commercials than usual because of the 20-day voting period. Smith has spent $3.7 million on his campaign, $2 million of it out of his own pocket. And Wyden’s campaign has spent $2.7 million. Wyden spokeswoman Lisa Grove Donovan.

LISA GROVE DONOVAN, Wyden Campaign: Our election day is over two weeks long, and so what we have to do is instead of build to that crescendo, sustain a very long musical note, if you will, so that people hear from us and hear the Ron Wyden message but not so they can make a decision on one particular day but so that that message will resonate for, for weeks.

LEE HOCHBERG: If vote-by-mail favors wealthy candidates, it might also create opportunities for crooked ones.

LEE HOCHBERG: (speaking to Jonathan Isaacs) So all of these ballots came in and you don’t know any of these people?

JONATHAN ISAACS, Oregon State University: Well, no, I know–

LEE HOCHBERG: With almost 2 million ballots mailed out, thousands appear to have arrived at addresses from which registered voters have long since moved. Oregon State University’s student body president says piles of blank ballots have stacked up at his fraternity house.

JONATHAN ISAACS: Like, I don’t know who this guy is. This guy was a fifth-year–this guy here was a fifth-year senior when I was a freshman. I knew him for one term. I think this guy joined the army. I don’t–so, this guy, he’s a firefighter now in Portland the last I heard, he was a senior when I was a freshman. I don’t–I’ve seen this guy before in pictures, old pictures, old composite pictures, but I don’t know who he is, and never met him, but anyone could walk in here anytime, pick up these ballots, take ’em down to their party headquarters or their house or whatever, and send in 100 votes for candidate, you know, X, candidate Y, whoever they want.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon’s secretary Keisling sees the potential for vote fraud but says in a state known for its squeaky clean politics, it hasn’t happened in any local vote-by-mail elections.

PHIL KEISLING: The overwhelming evidence has been in all the ballots we’ve been casting, including 300,000 last time around when we had 16 initiatives, the governor being elected, 75 legislators, and you didn’t have a single allegation of improper undue influence and coercion in those–in that election, much less a proven case of it.

SPOKESPERSON: Now Channel 2 news continues with–

LEE HOCHBERG: Major media outlets in Oregon have agreed not to further influence voters by conducting polls that could declare the election winner with days left to go in the race. In the opening days of the Senate vote, though, several stations, while not commissioning new polls, continued to report old data gathered before ballots went out.

NEWS PERSON: A recent Channel 2 News Oregonian poll shows the two candidates running neck and neck.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon pollster Tim Hibbits, whose poll the station reported, doubts the media will be able to resist handicapping future races.

TIM HIBBITS, Pollster: Sooner or later, whether it’s the national press or whether it’s something here in Oregon, you’re going to have a situation snap where for some reason or another someone is going to be releasing polling data in the middle of this process, and then I think we’re going to have a big dust-up.

LEE HOCHBERG: Despite all of the concerns, Oregonians using the mail and those using drop boxes like this seem to accept and appreciate the ease of their new system. For many critics, that may be the worst part of vote-by-mail, the ease. Though her newspaper editorialized in favor of mail elections, Oregonian columnist Margie Boule says the gain in convenience will never replace what’s lost in democratic tradition.

MARGIE BOULE, Columnist: It makes the act of voting less important. It makes it as important as responding to anything else that comes in the mail that you have to send back; the questionnaire from your grocery store, how do you like our service, you fill it out and you mail it back; the bill from the electric company, you write a check, you mail it back; the, the voter’s ballot for the senatorial primary, you fill it out, you mail it back. Ho-hum. It’s nothing important. I think human beings need ritual. You go to the polling place. You see your neighbors. You exchange greetings. It is the ritual of our citizenship, the ritual of our participatory democracy. And I’m very sad to see that go.

PHIL KEISLING: What turned me around on that was that in a sense I thought it was a form of misplaced sentimentality and a confusion of the form of democracy with the substance of it. You know, a community doesn’t disappear because the polling place disappears. Yes, we’ve got–we should on one level mourn the passing of the polling place. I’ll miss it myself. But it’s a trade-off.

LEE HOCHBERG: Results from this election, expected by week’s end, likely will be interpreted and reinterpreted as a referendum on vote-by-mail, itself.