A Tale of Voting by Mail

One of the quirks of Oregon's vote-by-mail election process is that campaigns don't end at a clear date -- they slowly peter out. Every registered ...
by | May 21, 2008

One of the quirks of Oregon's vote-by-mail election process is that campaigns don't end at a clear date -- they slowly peter out. Every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail a couple of weeks before the election and they're allowed to start returning them immediately. By the time "election day" rolls around, most people have already voted.

Doesn't that mean that breaking news in the final days of a campaign could have less of an effect than it otherwise would have? Couldn't, therefore, the vote-by-mail process produce a different result than a traditional precinct election would have?

Yes. In fact, that scenario may have played out yesterday.

Kevin Mannix and Mike Erickson squared off in a tight race for the Republican nomination in the fifth congressional district in Oregon. Two weeks ago, Erickson led 49%-41%. A fifth of respondents to the poll said they had already voted.

One week ago, Mannix alleged that, eight years earlier, Erickson had impregnated a woman he was dating and then paid for her to have an abortion. That claim, along with allegations that Erickson had used cocaine, dominated the final week of the campaign.

A poll conducted over the weekend showed Mannix taking the lead 46%-42%, presumably because of the controversy surrounding Erickson. The poll had Erickson ahead 46%-44% among respondents who said they had already voted (many of them before the allegations surfaced), but trailing 50%-36% among those who hadn't. More than 60% of respondents had already voted.

That poll ended up being overly optimistic for Mannix. Despite the controversy, Erickson prevailed 50%-44% when votes were counted last night. Did he win on the strengths of ballots cast too early to take into account the allegations?

It's impossible to say. Perhaps, ultimately, the stories didn't hurt Erickson -- meaning there was little difference between voters who sent in ballots two weeks ago and those who waited until yesterday. Voters might have perceived the controversy as a dirty trick by Mannix and punished him for it.

Furthermore, you'd think that only voters whose minds were completely made up would have cast ballots early. In that case, undecided voters would have been able to take into account the new information about Erickson.

In reality, voters often are less sure than they realize, as elections officials in vote-by-mail places know. "It's almost to the point of being humorous," says Sam Reed, Washington's Secretary of State. "They vote, but they say, 'Whoops, I changed my mind.' " Oregon doesn't allow switching of votes, so perhaps a bunch of voters were saying "whoops" with regard to their ballots for Erickson.

Regardless of what effect postal voting had on the 5th district race, the bigger question is whether this is a defect of the vote-by-mail system. Is there anything wrong with a system under which a large number of voters cast ballots a couple of weeks before the formal end of the campaign?

I don't really think so. No matter when elections are scheduled or how they are conducted, voters won't end up with every piece of information about the candidates. It's always possible that on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in November, we'll find out that a new officeholder-elect is a child molester or a serial killer or a space alien.

Candidates know that voters start mailing ballots early. If aspirants can't win over voters in time, they shouldn't blame the system.

Voters get to decide for themselves whether to hold their ballots until the final day or cast them early. Who knows, if they choose to vote early the result might be fewer elections influenced by the mudslinging and desperate tactics that typify the final days of campaigns.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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