My response to Bill Bradbury’s Washington Post OpEd

My response to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury’s recent Washington Post oped:

Secretary Bradbury is rightly proud of the tradition of high turnout and clean elections in Oregon. We have to be careful, however, in how much we can generalize from the Oregon experience to elections nationwide.

Oregon has always been a participative state. In the three midterm elections prior to voting by mail, Oregon turnout averaged 72%. Turnout in the three midterm elections after voting by mail averaged 66%. There is simply no evidence that voting by mail increased overall turnout in the state–and it is certainly incorrect to point to our turnout numbers in 2006 (69%) as prima facie evidence of the impact of this voting system.

Furthermore, Oregon’s turnout rate is not easily compared to other states due to our very clean registration rolls. The way Oregon maintains its rolls is a positive side effect of voting by mail (although not a reason that it was originally adopted). Essentially, Oregon relies on the US Postal Service to help maintain the rolls. Ballots are not forwarded, so if you move between elections and fail to notify the elections office, you are sent a postcard reminder to update your registration record. This keeps a lot of deadwood off the rolls (it also means that the registration “hurdle” is higher in Oregon).

But most important for our purposes here, it means that the “denominator” in the typical turnout calculation (ballots / registered voters) is smaller in Oregon than in other states with less clean rolls. If you calculate turnout by (ballots/eligible voters), Oregon still looks good, but it appears far more typical to other homogeneous, relatively affluent states with low commute times.

It is true that voting by mail is cheaper than “mixed” systems (systems with high levels of both precinct and absentee balloting)–though no one has yet compared costs to systems with high levels of in-person early voting and precinct place voting. And he’s also right that Oregon citizens endorse continued use of voting by mail.

There is a national movement underway, led by Senator Ron Wyden, Secretary Bill Bradbury, and other Oregonians to implement voting by mail nationwide. Like with any innovation, voting by mail has both advantages and disadvantages. What’s most important is that before we move wholesale to another major electoral reform, we understand its impact as fully as possible.