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Oregon has Elected to be a Leader

April 24th, 2020 by dk

Oregon was the first state to dismantle its polling places and conduct every election exclusively by mail. It was not a partisan issue. The Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill to expand Vote By Mail in 1995, but Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber vetoed it.

So, in June 1998, citizens of Oregon did what they do best. They took matters into their own hands. Volunteers collected enough signatures to get Vote By Mail on the ballot. Voters approved Ballot Measure 60 by a 2-to-1 margin on Nov. 3, 1998.

No Oregonian has had to stand in line to vote for 20 years now. Four other states have followed Oregon’s lead, and others are sure to come. Democrats remain determined to help states transition to VBM but Republicans are opposed. It’s become a partisan issue.

There’s very little Oregon can do to help other states, except to lead by example. Please note: the true Oregon spirit emerged in this story from 1998 not in November, but in June. It was the voter initiative and volunteer effort that brought the issue forward for the voters to decide.

Irony Alert! Oregonians will have no trouble voting in November, but there may not be much on their ballots. COVID-19 shut down public signature gathering in March. If the rules aren’t modified to respond to the crisis, there may be no voter initiatives on the ballot this fall.

Two voter initiatives are teasingly close to qualifying. Initiative Petitions 34 (creating a licensed psilocybin therapy program) and 44 (shifting some marijuana tax money to addiction and recovery services) lack only a few thousand signatures. 

They’re asking supporters to download a petition from their websites, sign it, and mail it in to be counted. It’s a heavy lift, but there’s a chance of success. Other campaigns have less hope.

Sara Wolk leads the latest campaign to bring STAR Voting reform to Lane County elections. She shared this update with me: “With tens of thousands of volunteer hours and years of organizing under our belts, it’s heart-breaking to see everything we’ve worked for caught in limbo.”

Calling it “limbo” might be overly optimistic. The STAR campaign has relied heavily on volunteers, but “that’s looking more and more impossible,” according to Wolk. A July signature submission deadline is looming.

Direct democracy — another Oregon voting innovation from a century earlier — is heading for disaster. The campaigns themselves have proposed some solutions for Oregon’s Secretary of State to consider in response:

1. Extend the deadline, or allow initiatives to submit signatures in batches, so collecting signatures can continue while verifying signatures begins.

2. Allow remote signature options, similar to those used in banking and other official documents.

3. Give qualifying initiatives the option to defer their inclusion to a later election of their choice.

Wolk and her STAR Voting team of volunteers is trying to remain positive: “We hope that the Secretary of State’s office will come up with fair solutions to prevent Oregon’s ballot initiative process from becoming one more casualty of COVID-19.”

That’s the spirit — the Oregon spirit.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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