The ‘profound power’ of vote by mail: Evolving a new ritual of democracy

Phil Keisling has been called “the Johnny Appleseed of mail-in ballots” and “the patron saint of vote by mail.” As Oregon’s secretary of state from 1991 to 1998, he pushed for the adoption of a then-unique system in which all active registered voters receive ballots through the postal system for all elections.

Oregon’s vote by mail began as an experiment at the local level when a county clerk asked a simple question: Since they were already paying to print and mail sample ballots to voters, why not just send the real thing? It turned out doing so saved money – while also boosting turnout and making voters happy, says Mr. Keisling.

Why We Wrote This

Oregon’s former secretary of state, who pioneered the practice there, says reducing logistical hurdles to voting, and letting people fill out ballots in the comfort of their home, is good for democracy.

Former President Donald Trump has denounced mail-in balloting, with no evidence, as rife with fraud. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country,” he said prior to last year’s election.

Some states expanded all-mail voting for the 2020 presidential election during the pandemic. Eight states have now adopted the method, including California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed universal mail-ballot legislation into law on Sept. 27.

More than 1 in 5 U.S. voters will receive their ballot for the 2022 midterms in their mailbox, automatically. 

Phil Keisling has been called “the Johnny Appleseed of mail-in ballots” and “the patron saint of vote by mail.” As Oregon’s secretary of state from 1991 to 1998, he pushed for the adoption of a then-unique system in which all active registered voters receive ballots through the postal system for all elections.

Oregon’s vote by mail began as an experiment at the local level when a county clerk asked a simple question: Since they were already paying to print and mail sample ballots to voters, why not just send the real thing? It turned out doing so saved money – while also boosting turnout and making voters happy, says Mr. Keisling.

Former President Donald Trump has denounced mail-in balloting, with no evidence, as rife with fraud. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country,” he said prior to last year’s election.

Why We Wrote This

Oregon’s former secretary of state, who pioneered the practice there, says reducing logistical hurdles to voting, and letting people fill out ballots in the comfort of their home, is good for democracy.

Some states expanded all-mail voting for the 2020 presidential election during the pandemic. Eight states have now adopted the method, including California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed universal mail-ballot legislation into law on Sept. 27.

More than 1 in 5 U.S. voters will receive their ballot for the 2022 midterms in their mailbox, automatically. 

This interview is part of a periodic series of conversations with thinkers and workers in the field of democracy – looking at what’s wrong with it, what’s right, and what we can do in the United States to strengthen it. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

When you were secretary of state, Oregon was one of the first states to adopt extensive mail-in balloting at all levels of elections. How did that come about?

Actually, as a state legislator in 1989, I voted against expanding mail-in ballots to primary elections. I didn’t know much about the issue, didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. I said, “You know, I like going to the polls.” You know, that Norman Rockwell-ish crunch of autumn leaves under crisp blue skies, seeing neighbors, going into the curtained booth. The ritual of it.

Then when I got appointed secretary of state, I soon realized that I was confusing a particularly well-known and, to some, beloved ritual of democracy with what its essence is. The essence is participation. And I saw the evidence of how big an impact it had on increasing voter turnout, on giving voters a better sense of control over their ballots. They could look at what was on it and not be rushed.

We were evolving a whole new ritual of democracy, which is voting around our kitchen and dining room tables, talking with our kids or parents or others. And so I pushed hard for it.

Oregon’s Democratic governor at the time – a member of your own party – vetoed the first state bill allowing wide mail-in ballot use. In the mid-1990s, why did Democrats oppose this?

One of the reasons the Democrats opposed expansion of vote by mail – which I now call “vote at home” – during my tenure in the 1990s was fear that it would give more power to the anti-government tax-cutting conservatives. They worried it would mean the defeat of funding measures for schools, where before you would get approval because if only 5% or 10% of the people showed up, well, at least they were the people that most wanted to fund the schools.

But for those of us who have embraced this method of connecting ballots to voters, we have to ask ourselves a very important question. And that question is: Even if we profoundly disagree with the outcome of an election in which a lot more people participate, don’t we think that in the long term that makes for a healthier small “d” democracy?

We had to take an initiative petition to the ballot, and in 1998 it was approved by a 70% to 30% margin by voters across Oregon, with approval in every single county. It was not seen as helping one party or the other; it was seen as a better way to run elections. And since 2000, Oregon started running every election this way.

As you well know, former President Trump has denounced any expansion of the use of mail-in ballots as dangerous to the country. Has Oregon experienced fraud?

Hundreds of millions of ballots have been mailed out. The amount of any kind of fraud or mischief is probably a two-digit number over all of those elections. In the end, you can’t say fraud doesn’t exist. You can’t say that people won’t do stupid things. You can’t say that people will never try to get away with something. But none of it has even come within a whisker of a possibility of affecting any kind of election outcome.

Why isn’t there more fraud, do you think?

A county clerk once put it to me this way: Have you ever asked why counterfeiters don’t bother counterfeiting pennies? If you’re going to do the crime, risk the time, you’re going to do $20s and $100s. You don’t have voter fraud because who wants to risk jail for one vote? 

Every time you do it [submit a fraudulent vote], it’s a different felony. One hundred ballots would be 100 felonies. And are 100 ballots out of 4 million ballots cast going to make a difference? It’s a simple math issue. You’d have to be incredibly stupid to think you could get away with it. But even if you could get away with it, it’s stupid to think that you’d make a material difference.

But former President Trump and his supporters have talked about alleged conspiracies that manufactured votes on a large enough scale to “flip” elections.

You know, people like us [past and current election officials] struggle about whether we should even respond to such delusional nonsense. That’s exactly what it is: delusional nonsense.

As Exhibit A, the Arizona partisan review. We should never even call these things [forensic audits]. These are fishing expeditions performed by incompetent, unqualified, partisan people hoping for a result – and they still can’t manufacture it!

When you automatically give all active registered voters a ballot, whether they want it or expect it or not, you will increase turnout. Shouldn’t we be asking the question, why are we afraid of increased turnout? I’m not afraid. I tell my Democratic friends that if Donald Trump had been reelected in an 80% turnout election in 2020, that, in the long term, would have been healthier for our democratic small “d” system than having Joe Biden, my preferred candidate, win in an election with just 60% turnout. 

You prefer to call an Oregon-style election system “vote at home” instead of “mail-in voting.” Why? What’s the difference?

Basically, we say elections ought to be an opt-out system, not an opt-in. We start from the premise that this is the most fundamental of our small “d” democratic constitutional rights, that it’s the government’s obligation to send voters their ballots, not voters’ obligation to go find their ballots by either physically traveling to a polling place or applying for an absentee ballot, if they qualify.

Actually, most people in Oregon do not “vote by mail.” The vast majority of Oregonians return their ballots in person. Over 70% of them, even with return postage paid, take it physically to a drop box or county election offices.  

Some of us want to make certain it gets in. Some of us do it because it’s more convenient. Some of it is to see other people that I know at City Hall where I dropped my ballot off. So that’s why we call it “vote at home” – it’s the least inaccurate term.

Even the confusion about what to call this system is revealing about how people haven’t grasped what the profound power of it is. In a sense, you’ve removed that last set of barriers, the logistical barriers that people often experience in their lives. 

As a former secretary of state, what do you make of the physical threats that election officials across the U.S. are receiving?

It’s terrible. The amount of threats is unconscionable. It’s even worse at the local level. It’s incredibly dismaying.

I do worry about that. I temper that with what I got to know in my time, the incredible dedication and commitment [of election officials] to do the right thing – this bipartisan commitment that I worked with, honored, and respected. 

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