Oregon’s Universal Mail-In Voting Transformed Civic Participation. Here’s How:

A Oregon-shaped mailbox that says "VOTE" with an absentee ballot return envelope waiting to be picked up by the USPS

When it comes to mail-in voting, Oregon is that friend who listened to music from bands before they became cool. We were the first state to conduct elections exclusively by mail. Since 2000, Oregon has mailed registered voters a ballot for every election. This policy change, made possible by a citizens’ ballot initiative passed in 1998, has revolutionized democratic participation in our state and helped us make elections more accessible. 

As the governor of the state that first adopted universal mail-in voting, I may be biased, but mail-in voting was an unsung hero in 2020. COVID-19 made it difficult for people to vote in person, and many states rose to the challenge in such an important election year by changing long-standing limitations on voting by mail. Pennsylvania implemented no-excuse absentee voting and the state went from a rate of less than 5% voting by mail in 2016 to 38% in 2020. Nevada simplified the process even further by mailing ballots directly to registered voters in 2020. They liked the new system so much that the Nevada Legislature passed a bill enacting the practice in the state, making Nevada the latest universal vote-by-mail state in the country.

Seeing what an impact mail-in voting can make on a national level, I want to share what we’ve learned in Oregon since implementing universal mail-in voting, and share ideas for expanding the franchise in states across the country: 

Mail-in voting doesn’t favor a single party. It lowers the barrier to casting a ballot for all voters. Despite Trump whining all throughout 2020 about mail-in voting favoring Democrats, recent studies show universal mail-in voting has no impact on partisan turnout. Trump’s smear campaign effectively tarnished the franchise, despite a long history of Republicans supporting mail-in voting. California Republicans actually pioneered the transition to permanent absentee voting lists in the 1980s and Utah, a state with a Republican trifecta, has had universal mail-in voting since 2012.

If a red state like Alabama implemented universal vote by mail, Democrats wouldn’t suddenly start winning statewide elections. Emphasizing equal access can help remove the partisan lens and reveal vote by mail for what it truly is: a convenient way to cast a ballot — no matter what party is on the ballot.

Universal mail-in voting has the potential to boost participation in primary elections. 

The jump we saw in primary election turnout in Oregon is nothing short of remarkable. By automatically sending mail ballots to voters, we made it easier for people to participate and have a voice in races taking place throughout the year, not just in November. In 1996, just 37.8% of voters cast a ballot in the primary. In 2000, it jumped to 51.3% and we’ve seen similar levels in years with presidential primary elections.

With media attention and voter outreach often lagging in primaries compared to general elections, having a ballot automatically arrive at your home may be a motivating factor for casting a vote instead of sitting out the election. Local elections also benefit from more people getting involved and having their voices heard, which is often made easier with universal mail-in voting.

Going beyond mail for ballot return.

Confidence and trust are key when it comes to administering elections. In 2020, Vote From Home encountered voters in swing states who wanted to avoid polling places because of the pandemic, but were unsure their ballots would be delivered if dropped in the mail to be returned. Ballot drop boxes and other in-person options for returning ballots are vital to making mail-in voting accessible. In Oregon, the majority of ballots are returned using ballot boxes placed conveniently throughout counties.

Election officials have done incredible work making mail-in voting versatile and helping people feel comfortable by providing them with options for returning ballots. Expanding the franchise to more states will require local understanding and ensuring voters have options for returning their ballots.

Mail-in voting is an unhackable way to cast a ballot. 

Election security is becoming more important each year with reports of data breaches and voting machine vulnerabilities. Many states are implementing paper ballot back-ups for an added layer of security for in-person voting. Universal mail-in is unhackable with each ballot providing proof of a voter-selection, without the need for a back-up.

With universal mail-in voting, its simplicity is a strength at a time when foreign actors are targeting our voting systems and officials need reliable ways to administer elections.

Alright, if it’s this easy and secure, why doesn’t every state implement universal mail-in voting? If only it were that simple! Trump and Republicans made it the punching bag of 2020, literally blaming his loss on mail ballots. Now, trusted election officials and leaders on both sides of the aisle must pick up the pieces left by this partisan bickering to recover vote by mail’s reputation.

Repairing this damage will not only make mail-in voting more accessible but also goes to the heart of undercutting the Republican lies about 2020 and their willingness to attack the voting process overall. Local election officials can go a step further with education campaigns by implementing and promoting ballot tracking tools so voters have eyes on their ballots all the way through the process. 

It’s hard to pass up the convenience of mail-in voting.

I can also see a path to expansion, especially in traditionally red states, with ballot measures that are non-partisan and appeal to its overall ease of access. Universal mail-in voting was finally passed in Oregon with a 1998 ballot measure, after being vetoed by Gov. Kitzhaber in 1995 and defeated in the state legislature in 1997. Cutting through the partisan noise and appealing directly to voters will be one of the best ways to establish more universal vote-by-mail states. 

We can get almost everything delivered to our door (or P.O. box) these days. It should be no different with voting, especially when Oregon and several other states have shown this model works by making casting it easier and secure to cast a ballot — along with cutting costs for election administration. Convenience rules and we should be duplicating tested and trusted models for making our elections more accessible by expanding universal vote by mail.

As the National Chair for Vote From Home USA, we are dedicated to helping more Americans vote by mail and expanding the franchise in states across the country. Join our grassroots volunteer team to make mail-in voting accessible in 2022 and beyond. 

Kate Brown is the 38th governor of Oregon.

Vote From Home USA is an organization that seeks to expand voter participation through access to early voting and voting by mail by leveraging grassroots organizing and advocacy.