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The Oregon lesson: How voting is done

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When Salem, Oregon resident Laura Davis Vick votes, there are no polling places involved, just her kitchen table and drive-up dropbox. Ballots are sent weeks before elections with proposed legislation explained in detail, giving her time to understand them before she makes her decisions.

“It’s so different from what I was accustomed to in Missouri where you had to go to a polling place and stand in a long line,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

The Beaver State hasn’t had polling places for more than 20 years, making voting one of the easier tasks in Davis Vick’s hectic life. In addition to being a property manager at a senior living facility, she takes care of her younger brother, James, who is disabled and unable to drive.

“Oregon should be the model for states across the country because then it will capture all of the people who fall through the cracks who have never had a real opportunity to vote and have their voices heard,” said the 62-year-old who was given the chance to register to vote when she registered her car shortly after moving to Oregon from Missouri three and a half years ago.

Laura Davis Vick

“It was so easy.”

Oregon’s pioneering approach to voting is in stark contrast to Georgia, where the state’s election process may be headed for radical and restrictive changes. Republican lawmakers have introduced a slew of election reform bills — more than 17 so far — that critics say amount to efforts to roll back voting rights. The proposed legislation comes after record voter turnout put Democrat Joe Biden in the White House and sent two Democrats from Georgia — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — to the U.S. Senate.

State Senator Nikki Merritt (D) recently cited Oregon in a speech blasting Republican colleagues’ proposed eight bills. Those bills were just the first round of election reform legislation that has been introduced in the Gold Dome. Merritt compared the bills to Jim Crow-era laws. Another round of proposed voter suppression bills was introduced on Feb. 11. Georgians would face a series of voting hurdles if the combined group of bills became.

The Senate Democratic Caucus has introduced its own bloc of bills to counter those introduced by Republican counterparts. Among the provisions the seven bills — SB 26 and SB 35-40 — call for: drop boxes at all early-vote locations, allowing poll workers to work in any county, counties to begin counting absentee ballots before election day, and voters to permanently be able to vote-by-mail, and keeping people’s voting privileges intact despite drug offenses.

Attempts to reach Republican senators Brandon Beach, Jeff Mullis, Brian Strickland, and Jason Anavitarte — sponsors on some of the bills — were unsuccessful.

However, comments made Thursday during the Senate Ethics Committee hearing on one of the pieces of legislation may provide insight into Republican lawmakers’ election reform efforts.

Sen. Larry Walker spoke to the committee about SB 67, which requires voters to submit a photocopy of their ID, a driver’s license number, or other state ID number to get an absentee ballot.

“Senate bill 67 is a measure to address inconsistencies in our identification requirement for requesting absentee ballots and inconsistencies in current codes and current practices,” Walker told the committee. “It is an attempt to provide an easily-verified way to confirm that the person requesting the ballot is indeed who they say they and live ballots are only issued to legal voters. There is nothing in here that is an attempt to make it harder to vote or to obstruct people from being able to vote by absentee. It is simply a measure to kind of bring our code up to what is currently being practiced as practices have changed over time, especially in this past election cycle due to COVID.” 

The bill, which eliminated signature match requirements, passed out of the ethics committee and now goes to the Senate floor for a vote.

Georgia’s proposed raft of legislation is part of a national wave of backlash bills that have been introduced since the recent outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Some 28 states have introduced more than 100 election-reform bills in the last couple of months, according to the Voting Roundup 2021 study by Brennan Center for Justice. The proposed legislation seeks to limit mail voting access, impose stricter voter ID requirements, limit pro-voter registration policies and allow for more aggressive voter roll purges.

As the tug-of-war over Georgia’s election process intensifies, some lawmakers such as Merritt are looking to states like Oregon for inspiration.

“I like that Oregon focuses on high voter participation and turnout. They remove all barriers so they can meet that goal,” Merritt told Atlanta Civic Circle.

When asked if Georgia could follow Oregon’s approach, Merritt had doubts.

“If we could get the Republicans to sign on, yes, Georgia could replicate what Oregon is doing but I don’t think they will,” she said. “The reality here is that the Republican party…still controls the legislative branch here at the local level for now. Right now we can only take inspiration from places like Oregon and Colorado.” 

Meanwhile, Oregonians are watching Georgia’s election reform fight with interest. One Oregon expert who studies political behavior and U.S. elections expressed concern about what’s now going on in Georgia.

“Frankly I’m shocked. I have not seen this. This is pretty amazing. I find this incredibly discriminatory,” Priscilla Southwell, professor emerita of political science at The University of Oregon told Atlanta Civic Circle. “I find it cryptic that Republic legislators would try to do this. They run the risk of suppressing their own Republic support or that of independents who have voted for their party in the past.”

Southwell said she hopes “a lot of these [Georgia bills] died in committee and won’t have to be addressed on the floor. A lot of them seem mean-spirited and undemocratic.”

Oregon’s voting system benefits the elderly who have trouble getting to the polls or applying for absentee ballots, said Southwell who has done a lot of research on vote-by-mail. It also helps a lot of young people who may not have transportation or work jobs that don’t allow them to take time off to vote. 

“There is really no evidence vote-by-mail which expands the right to vote hurts or helps one party over another,” she said. “I think the [Georgia] Republicans are going down the wrong track. This is not a good route to take.”

“Universal vote-by-mail should be considered’ in Georgia, Southwell added.

Oregon adopted vote-by-mail as its chief vehicle for voting with Ballot Measure 60, a citizen’s initiative, in 1998. Oregon became the first state in the country to hold elections exclusively by mail because of that measure.

Hawaii, Colorado, Utah, and the state of Washington have since followed suit. California used universal vote-by-mail for the 2020 election but Southwell said, “it remains to be seen what they’ll do in the future.”

“Universal vote-by-mail should be considered” in Georgia, Southwell added.  

Instead of trying to curtail voter turnout, Southwell said, Georgia Republicans should “go after new voters.” 

“Start thinking about attracting people into the party rather than alienating them,” she said.

Davis Vick is familiar with voter harassment. She was a union official in Missouri where “we held workshops and other brainstorming sessions to try to figure out how to limit the amount of voter suppression in the state” leading up to the 2008 presidential election. She also remembers handing out bottled waters to beleaguered voters as they stood in line for hours to vote.

“We encouraged people to stay in line,” she recalled. Even with those forms of intimidation, Davis Vick says they don’t compare to Georgia’s current predicament. 

“What you guys are facing in Georgia is way worse than what it was like in Missouri,” the Oregon transplant said. “It sounds like they want to roll back the ability to make voting as easy as possible in Georgia. It’s as if they want to control the outcome of elections by limiting voters. Why are they afraid of people voting?”

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Watch this video to see how and why Oregon vote-by-mail works.

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