ballots

Melodie Kirk gathers envelopes containing ballots from a sorting machine at the Deschutes County Clerk’s Office in 2018. 

Oregon voters love to vote by mail. So does the governor and two senators, all Democrats. Plus the secretary of state, a Republican.

But one American political leader is dead-set against it — and he lives in the White House.

"The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots," President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on May 24. "It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and ‘force’ people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!"

Twitter, for the first time, added a warning note to Trump’s tweets on voting by mail, with a link to media reports calling Trump's claims unsubstantiated. It said its research staff found “no evidence” of voter fraud tied to mail-in ballots.

But some Republicans have echoed Trump’s sentiments.

“The apocalypse has arrived,” said Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan.

A debate over expanding mail-in voting nationwide has been set off by the question of how to hold a national election in November during a pandemic that has already killed 100,000 Americans since February.

Currently, 34 other states and the District of Columbia allow absentee ballots. Oregon, along with Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii, hold elections with mail-only voting.

This year, more than 168 million of the nation’s nearly 198 million registered voters are eligible to vote without going to the polls. In comparison, about 33 million ballots were cast by mail in November 2016, accounting for 25% of the total vote cast in the general election that year.

Opponents say vote by mail is Democrats' plan to radically change the way elections have always been held, in hopes of denying Trump a second term.

True the Vote, a conservative, Texas-based vote-monitoring organization, has led the legal charge against attempts to switch to vote by mail.

Supporters say mail-in voting is a reasonable alternative to forcing voters to risk their health by going to the polls. The real reason for opposing the idea, they say, is to suppress voter turnout by keeping frightened voters away from the ballot box. They use Trump's own words from an April 3 interview with Fox News about a bill to pay for national vote by mail as evidence.

"The things they had in there were crazy.” Trump said. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again."

Advocates point to two recent primary elections as an illustration of how the two scenarios would play out in November.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, issued an executive order the day before that state’s April 7 primary, moving the election to June 9 because of the high rate of infection in the state. The state Supreme Court later that day voted 4-2 that the primary should be held as originally planned.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, called the ruling a win for Wisconsin voters.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state's largest newspaper, disagreed, calling the vote "the most undemocratic election in state history."

Voters went to the polls amid a "shelter-in-place" order and over 2,000 positive cases of COVID-19. A shortage of poll workers led to Milwaukee reducing the planned 180 voting places to just five. Hundreds of people stood in long lines to cast a ballot. Soon after, Milwaukee public health officials attributed 40 new positive cases of the virus to infection at the polling places.

"Everybody saw what happened in Wisconsin," said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. "People 60 years old standing in line to vote. Poll workers, many of whom were over 60. It was a prescription for trouble."

Oregon held its May 19 primary entirely by mail, as it has with all elections since voters approved the idea by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 1998.

More than 1.3 million ballots were cast without anyone going to a polling place. Like Wisconsin, Oregon was under an emergency order calling for residents to stay home because of the pandemic.

"Oregon showed how to vote safely during pandemic," Wyden said. "We have to take the Oregon way and make it the national way."

Oregon's first all-mail election in January 1996 resulted in Wyden winning the U.S. Senate seat of Republican Bob Packwood, who had resigned over sexual harassment allegation the previous fall. Wyden has tried unsuccessfully since 2002 to get a bill passed to approve vote by mail nationwide. He's been supported in recent efforts by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

Though the idea has yet to win majority support, Wyden says he sees progress.

"When I started, vote by mail was an idea for the tweed jacket set to write academic papers about," Wyden said. "But COVID-19 has shown the need for adopting it."

Not all Republicans oppose mail-in votes. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued an executive order that the state's primary be done by mail-in vote. The 2020 Oregon primary was overseen by Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican and former state house speaker.

“Because Oregon votes by mail we do not have to be concerned about social distancing issues at polling places that so many other states are struggling with,” Clarno said just before the primary vote.

A Reuters poll in April showed that 72% of respondents want the option of mail-in ballots in November, including 65% of Republicans.

"Frankly, it's long past time for the country to implement mail-in voting nationwide," Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, wrote in an April 17 column in Newsweek. "Vote by mail is proven as the most reliable and secure way for Americans to exercise their right to vote. We've had it in Oregon for decades, and we now have one of the highest voter participation rates in the country."

A change is unlikely this year. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school estimated that a nationwide mail-only election in November would cost $4 billion to implement. Congress approved $400 million for states to help with elections during the initial rounds of stimulus aid because of the COVID-19 crisis. But GOP leaders balked at another $3.6 billion Democrats put into a later proposed stimulus bill.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said virus relief bills should focus only on immediate needs.

“You want to hold up the bill because you want to change election law for November, because you think that gives you some political benefit?” McCarthy said during a media teleconference on April 9. “That’s disgusting to me. Stop worrying about politics. Worry about what’s in front of us. And that’s the health of the nation — and our economy.”

Vote by mail faced opposition among top political leaders in Oregon at one time. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, vetoed statewide vote-by-mail legislation in 1995. But Secretary of State Phil Kiesling, also a Democrat, used his authority to order the special election that led to Wyden's election to the Senate. The 65% voter turnout was an Oregon record at the time. In 1998, Oregon voters approved the mail-in system for all future state elections.

Wyden said extending vote by mail nationwide was just taking a proven concept and applying it more broadly. Once they have tried it, Americans won't be clamoring to return to Election Day line-ups in the future.

"I think clearly all the trends are in our direction," he said. "What we are really talking about is upscaling the status quo."

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