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Wyden, allies defend mail voting against national critics

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Ron Wyden, a champion of mail ballots since his initial election to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in early 1996, is defending their use against attacks from 2020 election deniers.

Oregon was the first to use mail ballots in all statewide elections back in 2000, following two decades of experimenting and fine-tuning the system. The total is up to eight states, plus Washington, D.C., for the Nov. 8 election — and many more used them in 2020 as an emergency measure during the coronavirus pandemic. (Virtually all are in the West, including all neighboring states except Idaho.)

Wyden, who is up for election Nov. 8 to a fifth full term, is the sponsor of federal legislation to promote their use nationally.

“Vote by mail has delivered democracy directly in Oregon for more than a quarter century,” he said at an event Tuesday next to an official drop box in north Portland.

“We are gathered in north Portland to deliver a message directly to all of this election-denying movement or anybody else who would attack our proven system. Look at the facts — and hands off.”

Some election deniers — who say falsely that Donald Trump won the presidency in 2020 — have called on states to return to rigid restrictions on what used to be absentee ballots. Wyden said that of 552 Republicans nominated for Congress, governor, secretary of state and attorney general, 201 are full election deniers and 62 are doubters.

In addition to ending long lines and polling places, Wyden said, mail voting is easier for older people and people with disabilities — and it eases voting for people who are juggling other commitments.

“For people of color, they deserve a trusted voting system after a long American history of cruel schemes denying them the right to vote,” he said.

Black leaders speak

Among the others Wyden invited were two Black leaders, state Rep. Travis Nelson of north Portland and Nkenge Harmon Johnson, chief executive of the Urban League of Portland. Also present was Phil Keisling, who was Oregon secretary of state in 1998 when voters approved the use of mail ballots in all elections. Keisling is board chair of the National Vote at Home Institute, which he founded in 2017, well before the pandemic induced other states to expand mail balloting.

“I am proud to live in a state where I do not have to vote under duress, the way my parents and grandparents did,” Nelson said. Nelson’s grandparents were sharecroppers in Louisiana, and his parents lived under Jim Crow laws that separated the races in the South.

“I am endlessly astonished and troubled by reports around this state and country of elections officials threatening this proven system that is such a big tool for democracy,” he said.

Two recent Republican secretaries of state in Oregon — Dennis Richardson, and after he died in 2019, Bev Clarno — defended Oregon’s system against attacks by Trump and his supporters. Defenders say fraud is extremely rare — and safeguards numerous.

Harmon Johnson grew up in Salem, where she remembers her parents voting in person and receiving “I voted” stickers. She said she had looked forward to doing the same, but she left Oregon for college and work, and never encountered mail voting until she returned.

“Rituals can be remade to fit who we are and what we have now,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to change my ritual.”

She said she has seen how voting is conducted in other states — and it was no fun for her and others to wait in long lines, go to the wrong polling places, and juggle voting with school, work and other tasks.

“Ritual is one thing,” she said. “But the actual activity of being able to express ourselves as citizens about those who lead and serve us is really the more important principle at stake. I have seen the challenges that Americans have had placed in front of them between these and their ability to choose their representatives.

“It seems to me that especially after the pandemic, vote by mail makes life easier.”

From skeptic to advocate

As a state representative in 1989, Phil Keisling conceded that he voted against a proposed expansion of mail balloting, based on nostalgia for neighborhood polling places.

“After I became secretary of state (in 1991), I realized I was confusing a particular ritual of democracy with its essence, which was participation,” he said.

Mail voting began in Oregon in 1981 when then-Secretary of State Norma Paulus, a Republican, advocated legislation for its test use in a local election later that year. By the end of the decade, all of Oregon’s 36 counties — which conduct the actual elections — had tested mail voting. The first statewide mail election involving a ballot measure was in 1993. Wyden’s election to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in January 1996 was its first use involving candidates.

The Legislature passed mail-ballot legislation for all elections in 1995, but Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed it on grounds that the bill did not get adequate public consideration. Two years later, after Wyden was elected, the House passed a similar bill but it died in the Senate. Voters then passed a ballot initiative in 1998.

Keisling resigned in late 1999, just before Oregon conducted its first primary and general elections by mail in 2000. That year’s general election listed 26 statewide ballot measures, a modern record for the state.

“Voters found they could cast a more informed ballot,” he said. “They love the convenience, they love the cost savings, but they say there was so much on the ballot that they found they can be better citizens.”

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