New Jersey's change over to a partial vote-by-mail system will change the way local candidates will have to campaign and could change the entire voting landscape, according to officials in Oregon, which has had partial or full vote-by-mail for decades.
Last month, Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation tossing out the state's absentee ballot laws and allowing mail-in ballots for all voters who request them. Polling places will continue to operate as well. The move to a partial vote-by-mail system is similar to the system Oregon adopted in the 1980s before deciding to move to an entirely statewide vote-by-mail system in 1998.
According to Don Hamilton, the communications director for Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, the Beaver State has seen an increase in local election turnout since the move to vote-by-mail elections. He said the local races, many of which are held when presidential and gubernatorial races are not being held, have attracted more turnout from vote-by-mail due to the low-profile nature of the elections. The idea of a ballot coming to a person's home and not having to go to a polling place has made people tune into these races.
"In a small election that gets a lot of attention, vote-by-mail is easier," Hamilton said. "Voting by mail fits a contemporary lifestyle more than going to a polling place."
Oregon's vote-by-mail system was created in 1981 for local elections, with local governments being allowed to choose the system for small races. The idea became popular in rural areas, which led the state to adopt a system similar to the one New Jersey is now introducing. In 1998, the state decided via referendum to become the only state to introduce total vote-by-mail statewide.
Oregon's ballots go out to voters approximately three weeks before the election and are due back to local election authorities by the close of polls on election day. Votes can be mailed in or deposited in special boxes around the state. State officials routinely see about a quarter of the ballots coming back in the first days after ballots are mailed out with close to half coming back in the last two days before polls close.
Oregon officials said the vote-by-mail system has changed the state's entire campaign system, with traditional get-out-the-vote activities being tossed out the window. Oregon State Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, said he had to start get-out-the-vote activities three weeks before the election when he ran last year and continue those operations for the entire vote-by-mail period. This is different from New Jersey's traditional election system, where get-out-the-vote efforts are usually the focus of the last week. In towns like Westfield, the final weekend of the campaign is the traditional focus of get-out-the-vote activities.
Smith said he would recommend that Westfield candidates move over to the dual get-out-the-vote activities, which was common in Oregon when they had the combination of vote-by-mail and polling place voting. He said this would allow candidates to cross off names of people who already voted early on in order to focus on remaining voters closer to the election. In addition he said a push to vote by mail would be helpful for commuters who may not have time to vote on election day or could miss the polling hours due to commuting issues.
"The fact that you have an 18-day get-out-the-vote period is big," Smith said. "In those local elections where turnout is a big thing, getting your supporters to vote is big. GOTV is more salient."
In 2005, Democratic Fourth Ward Councilman Tom Bigosinski defeated Republican Eric Lethold by one vote to capture the seat. Bigosinski is defending his seat against Republican Keith Loughlin this year in what is expected to be the most competitive race in Westfield.
Smith said he encourages Westfield politicians to embrace the new system and to encourage the state to move to the system his state has in place.
"Be in favor of greater voter access and more people participating," Smith said. "Democracy works better with more people."
Hamilton, a former reporter for the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, said Smith's experiences have been common across the Beaver State from legislative and local candidates to statewide candidates. He said the split strategy was common during the time the state employed the hybrid system New Jersey is implementing.
Smith, who is the founder of the Oregon Bus Project, a statewide organization geared towards getting more younger voters involved in the political process, said he has not seen the vote-by-mail system having a particular impact on younger voters. He noted that in 2004 his state had one of the highest disparities between younger voter turnout and older voter turnout in the country, while in 2008 the disparity between the groups was among the lowest. Both of those races were vote-by-mail, but Smith attributes the 2008 totals to Barack Obama's candidacy.
A 2006 article in American Prospect, authored by Hamilton during his tenure as a freelance journalist, provides some data on the early days of mail-in voting in Oregon. The state's first total mail-in vote was a January 1993 statewide referendum on repaying urban renewal district bonds, an election which normally brings in low turnout. The referendum's turnout was 39 percent. A December 1995 primary to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, conducted by mail-in votes, had a 58-percent turnout and the January 1996 special Senate election, saw 66-percent of state voters elect Republican Gordon Smith to the Senate.
Bill Lunch, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Oregon State University, disagrees with some of the turnout projections of mail-in voting that Smith and Hamilton are trumpeting. He said several studies have not shown a large change in turnout in the state. The only exception was a small increase in voting by mothers with young children.
"It was so small that it would not change the statistical analysis," Lunch said.
Lunch instead argued that the best way to increase turnout is to have universal registration, which is the law in France and other European countries. He said the idea of registering to vote prevents people from voting in the U.S.
Lunch said he has concerns with New Jersey having mail-in voting, citing the state's history of—and reputation for—political corruption. He said he could envision scenarios where parties could steal ballots from the post office in order to suppress voter turnout in areas controlled by the other party or bribing voters or trying to intimidate voters while they vote in their homes. He noted that the system would not allow the same levels of privacy as voting at a polling place.
He said the fears had been discussed in Oregon in the past, but people were not as concerned because of the state's history of political reform.
"The political culture here is dominated by ideas that would make it unlikely here, unlike in New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois or Maryland," Lunch said.
Hamilton said the state has instituted a number of safety measures, including requiring voters to sign the outside of the mail-in envelope, similar to the old absentee ballot laws in New Jersey. He said election officials have been trained by the State Police to analyze signatures and said questionable signatures are referred back to the voter to confirm their identity.
Hamilton said he encourages New Jersey to continue to look at mail-in voting and also said he expects to see residents in Westfield embrace the chance to vote by mail. He said his state has seen more active discussion of issues and candidates during the process.
"You gain a certain amount of civic participation in a family gathered around the kitchen table late at night with the adults debating and voting," Hamilton said.