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Ballots mailed by Election Day could soon be counted in Oregon

Election worker Lucille Travis works at an automated signature reading machine as she helps process ballots at the Multnomah County election office in Portland, Ore., Nov. 2, 2020. Oregon could soon accept ballots that were postmarked by Election Day.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Election worker Lucille Travis works at an automated signature reading machine as she helps process ballots at the Multnomah County election office in Portland, Ore., Nov. 2, 2020. Oregon could soon accept ballots that were postmarked by Election Day.

Voters who mail their ballot in Oregon would no longer need to guess whether it will arrive in time for Election Day, under a bill that passed the state House of Representatives on Monday.

Instead, House Bill 3291 would ensure ballots are accepted as long as they’re postmarked on or before Election Day, and reach elections officials by one week following the election. The bill also would allow county clerks to begin counting ballots when they’re received, rather than waiting until a week before an election, and change some elections-related dates.

HB 3291 passed the House on a 39-21 vote, with two Republicans joining unanimous Democrats in support. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Using postmarks, rather than insisting mailed ballots be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, is a change lawmakers have debated for decades, since shortly after Oregon became the first state to allow mail voting in all elections. But the idea has never passed the Legislature.

In the meantime, more than a dozen states, including California and Washington, have adopted systems that use postmarks in order to determine whether a ballot is eligible to be counted after an election.

Prominent Democrats like now-U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and now-Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury voted against the idea when it failed to pass the House in 2001, while some in Republican leadership voted for it.

“This bill has been brought forward into this chamber, or into this body, numerous times,” said state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who presented HB 3291 on the floor. “We should have started this trend in 2001.”

Advocates for the bill say it gives voters an easy rule to go by: they need to either mail or drop off their ballot by Election Day to ensure it’s counted. That’s a change from Oregon’s current process, in which elections officials typically warn voters to mail their ballots roughly a week before Election Day to ensure they’re received in time.

Not everyone believes the change is so straightforward.

While debate on the bill was brief, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, spoke to oppose the bill. Specifically, Drazan opposed a provision that would require elections officials to accept a ballot that had an illegible or missing postmark, as long as it was received no later than seven days past an election.

“This creates a level of complexity and uncertainty that I think will result in lawsuits,” Drazan said, calling the bill “a little bit problematic and challenging.”

Rayfield pointed out that, under the proposed system, a voter’s signature on a ballot envelope would double as an attestation, under penalty of perjury, that it was mailed on or before Election Day. In order to successfully scam such a system with a late vote, Rayfield said, “You would have to get out your crystal ball as a voter, sign this statement under penalty of perjury and then mail it after the date ... just hoping that that might not have a postmark date on it.”

One lawmaker who’d opposed the idea of using postmarks in the past, state Rep. Greg Smith, rose to support it this time around. Smith, R-Heppner, said he “may have been a little delusional” when opposing the concept in 2001. On Monday, he called the bill “legislation we should probably take a real hard look at and see what we can do to advance this concept.”

The state’s county clerks, who would see changes to the way they conduct elections, could not reach agreement on HB 3291.

“This is a big change to the way Vote by Mail elections have been conducted in Oregon for the past two decades, and [the Oregon Association of County Clerks] could not come to a consensus about a position on this bill,” the group wrote in testimony. It went on to say that amendments that had been proposed “address almost all of the concerns raised by the Clerks.”

The law change will likely spur costs for counties, which will have to replace some elections materials, the OACC said.

If passed by the Senate and signed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, HB 3291 would affect elections held after January 2022.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.