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POLITICS : Stakes Are High for Oregon's Experiment in Mail-In Voting

September 27, 1995|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — When Oregon conducts its primary for replacing Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood later this year, the ballot box will be as near as the corner mailbox. Analysts say this simple experiment in mail-order democracy could forever change the way campaigns are run--and, some warn, threaten the process of community-building that occurs when citizens gather at their polling stations.

The new vote-by-mail experiment, never before attempted in a congressional election, is heralded as a way to save up to $2.5 million a year in election costs and lure large numbers of voters to the polls. Critics say it will make campaigns more expensive by forcing candidates to seek longer pre-election exposure and will open the door to potential fraud.

Some political analysts predict that vote-by-mail balloting, already widely used in local races in Oregon, will give better-organized Republicans an edge and could mean a new level of political engineering by churches and other social groups with the ability to organize balloting within their memberships.

"You can easily see the potential for families sitting down together and deciding how to vote, and what scares everybody is the churches sitting down together and saying you can vote however you want--hell is an option," said James D. Moore, political science professor at the University of Portland.

The Oregon Legislature, in the closing hours of its last session in June, adopted a statewide vote-by-mail measure that would have required all elections to be conducted by post. But Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the law, saying he thought the idea needed further study.

The Democratic governor was reportedly urged by both political parties to be cautious. Democrats feared that the Republicans' superior organizational abilities would give them the edge. Republicans worried that ballots would be placed in the hands of large numbers of Democrats who usually don't bother to vote.

Packwood's recent decision to leave office Oct. 1 in the wake of the sex scandal surrounding him provided an opportunity for all sides to give the mail-in ballot a trial run in both a Dec. 5 primary and the general election on Jan. 30.

Past experiments in local elections have demonstrated significant increases in voter participation and only one reported instance of fraud, when a county commissioner in southwest Oregon filled out a ballot on behalf of his wife, who was in the hospital.

Government officials have downplayed the potential for fraud, incorporating careful signature checks and a double envelope to protect the secret ballot. Critics say the measure nonetheless opens the door to problems when ballots begin "floating around" in people's homes and cars.

Don Balmer, political science professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, pointed to the dozens of local election ballots directed to students that wait unclaimed at his university department office. "If you really wanted to forge those ballots, you got a whole batch of 'em sitting at any college," he said. "Who's going to stop me from sending them in? Is somebody going to get Johnnie Cochran to look at all those signatures on the back?"

Consultants predict that vote-by-mail electioneering will be more expensive. Candidates can no longer dump their money into a television blitz right before Election Day; instead, they will have to buy more time to maintain their exposure throughout the weeks when voters are mailing in their ballots.

Many in Oregon, while welcoming the chance for higher participation, also lament the possible loss of community that is involved in a one-day trip to the polls.

"I want to do everything we can to make voting more easy, more convenient," said Leonard Bergstein, a Democratic political analyst. "On the other hand, I think there is something pretty wonderful about everybody exercising their franchise at the same time. The chances of people engaging themselves and discussing issues together is important to me. Some people think we're really going to miss this notion of community that comes out of elections--people that are voting in the same place at the same time."

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