Kitchen Table Voting

by

I don’t know what percentage of the ballots filed every election in the state of Oregon have food stains on them, but I’ll bet it’s higher than the national average.

I say that, having splashed a little spaghetti sauce on my ballot at lunchtime yesterday, as I sat filling it out on the kitchen table. I did the same thing the last time I voted, though that time, as I recall, it was gravy.

Chalk it up as an occupational hazard of voting by mail – which is what all of us do here in Oregon every time there’s an election.

My ballot arrived Monday, about a week after the official voter guides. At lunchtime yesterday, I laid out everything on the dining room table and worked my way through the propositions and the candidates one by one, marking my choices on the ballot as I went. In all, I guess it took about 30 or 40 minutes to read everything and fill it all out. Today I’ll drop it off at the post office and be done with it for another two years.

Oregon’s experience with voting by mail dates back more than 20 years, starting first in county and local elections, where it was adopted to save money. (Mail-in elections cost only about one-third to one-half as much as standard polling place elections.)

When Bob Packwood resigned from the US Senate in 1995, time was short, budgets were tight, and the state of Oregon conducted the whole election by mail-in ballots – the first time it had ever been done for a federal election.

The exercise proved so popular that the League of Women Voters sponsored an initiative in 1998 to make voting by mail mandatory for all Oregon elections. The proposition passed easily and every Oregon election since 2000 has been conducted entirely though mail-in ballots.

A survey of Oregon voters in 2003 by University of Oregon political scientist Priscilla Southwell found that the practice remains very popular in the state:

The results suggest that Oregonians, across all demographic and partisan categories, continue to favor this type of election. A majority of respondents indicated that their turnout has not changed since the adoption of vote by mail. However, almost one-third of the respondents reported that they voted more often with vote by mail – particularly women, the disabled, homemakers, and those aged 26-38 years. These results also suggest that no partisan advantage is likely to result as a consequence of elevated turnout under vote by mail.

Indeed, in 2004 Oregon was one of only seven states whose voter turnout exceeded 70%.

What I like most about voting by mail – aside from the kitchen table convenience – is that it interferes with the last-minute smear tactics that have become so commonplace in politics today. To have their most devastating effect, those attack ads have to appear in the final 10 days in the campaign, casting a malignant tone to the election just as people are getting ready to troop out to the polls.

That tactic doesn’t work any more in Oregon, since people here mail in their ballots over a nearly three-week period leading up to Election Day. Pity the poor mudslingers.

Voting by mail has one other advantage that will be especially apparent this year, when so many states will be experimenting with electronic voting: there’s no problem with hard-copy backups in case of recounts. Though I almost hate to admit it, sometimes the best solution is low tech.

Is voting by mail the greatest thing since sliced bread? Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Is it better than slogging down to the polls on Election Day, waiting in line at some elementary school or fire house, then sequestering yourself behind curtains in a cramped booth? You bet.

And I ask you, aren’t a few food stains on the ballots a small price to pay for a better democracy?