John Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday will bring yet another manifestation of our marvelous mail voting system. Actually, this year’s proof has been evident for two weeks as 84,274 Clark County voters have researched ballots they received by mail. As of Friday, 25,714 of those ballots had been returned. That’s a participation of about 30.5 percent so far, and County Auditor Greg Kimsey is projecting a final turnout of about 45 percent.
The more our state (and especially mail-voting pioneer Oregon) settles into this system, the weaker become the complaints of a few years back. Indeed, a 2003 survey conducted by the University of Oregon’s political science department showed 81 percent approval of postal voting, with bipartisan support from Democrats (85 percent approval) and Republicans (76 percent). I suspect approval is even higher today, nine years later.
Of course, such widespread acceptance won’t muzzle the Hounds of Whinerville whose DNA happens to be braided around a fierce and immutable resistance to change. Just a little foresight reveals the next tactic of this small but full-throated kennel: They will correctly point out that the mail-voting procedure relies upon a withering postal system that could become obsolete in two or three decades. My prediction is that, by then, online voting will have been perfected to the point of implementation, but let’s set aside what I think and look at some recent developments.
We keep hearing reports of Saturday mail delivery being eliminated. Nothing imminent, but as columnist Jeff Mapes reported in The Oregonian, 252 mail processing facilities are nearing closure around the country, including four in Oregon -- in Salem, Eugene, Bend and Pendleton. This could slow delivery of ballots, especially in rural areas. But there are a few ways to solve this problem and keep voting easy. One would be earlier mailing of ballots. Another is to increase ballot drop-off sites. As Mapes wrote, this could even mean converting “some of the large mailboxes outside of closed post offices to serve as (ballot) drop boxes.”
No worries about delays
Because all of Clark County’s mail-returned ballots are processed through Portland, I asked Kimsey how the long-term negative outlook for the Postal Service might affect voters here. He’s not worried. “A big difference between Oregon and Washington is that they cannot mail ballots until 18 days before election day whereas in Washington we mail ballots 20 days before election,” Kimsey explained. “If Saturday delivery is eliminated, many of our voters will still get their ballots the Friday after we mail them on Wednesday. And those who in the past may have received their ballots on Saturday would receive them on Monday. A slight delay, but I don’t think it will be a problem for voters,” who would still have two weeks to vote.
Even if all mail delivery is eliminated in the distant future, Kimsey agreed that online voting could be the solution, but he likes the current array of four options: vote by mail, take your ballot to a drop-off site on election day, take it to the ballot box (open 24/7 for two-plus weeks) at 14th and Esther streets, or take your ballot to the elections office.
The two biggest complaints I hear about postal voting are easily answered, although some folks might be unwilling to listen:
• “Mail voting destroys my cherished tradition of going to the polling place on election day.” Well, start another tradition! Sit down with family members and discuss your ballot. Show it to your children. Explain to them how much you love your right to vote. Ask the kids’ advice about issues and candidates. Let them see you vote. That’s a better civics lesson than telling them about your trip to some polling place.
• “Mail voting increases the chance of coercion. With a mailed ballot, my spouse (usually the husband; you know how guys are) will browbeat me and make sure I vote a certain way. That never happened at a polling place.” As I have explained before, trust me, yours is not a voting problem. It’s a marital problem.