Vote-By-Mail? ELGL’s Interview with Phil Keisling, Former Oregon Secretary of State

Posted on November 13, 2012

Did you vote last week? Did you vote-by-mail or did you go to a voting booth? Or did your indifference cause you not to vote? Former Oregon Secretary of State and ELGL member Phil Keisling follows up his recently published letter in the New York Times with additional insight into voter turnout and and the benefits of vote-by-mail.

Sunday Dialogue: To Enhance Democracy, Expand Vote-by-Mail – Readers debate a former Oregon official’s suggestion to extend his state’s system nationwide.

Your recent piece in the New York Times raised the discussion of expanding vote by mail. What feedback have you received on the piece?

The feedback I’ve received has been mostly favorable. I heard directly from the Secretary of State in Connecticut, who likes the idea but faces unusual obstacles. (She must convince the legislature to vote twice to amend the Connecticut Constitution to allow the system, and then convince voters to pass the amendment). I’ve also heard from postal workers who are proud of the job they and their colleagues have done with the system.

After reading reaction which I am imagine was both positive and negative, are there any points that you wish to clarify in your argument for expanding vote by mail?

Our system isn’t a panacea for all that ails democracy and the issues of low participation. And I also think it’s important to recognize that the LEAST effect it can have is in presidential general elections, where there are so many other dynamics at work to encourage high turnout. (Remember, a large share of the billions spent this fall didn’t go TV advertising, but to “Get out the Vote” efforts, especially in battleground states, many of which involved paid phone callers and canvassers trying to ensure that every last one of “their” voters actually cast a ballot). As I said in my article, the system will have the bigger effect in non-presidential general elections, and an even bigger effect in party primary elections.

That last point I can’t stress strongly enough. When just 10-15% of registered voters participate in these latter elections — when and where 80%+ of congressional and state legislative offices are essentially decided — you do a lot to “lock in” the dynamics of excess partisanship that so many lament, from both sides. These kind of hyper-low turnout elections tend to reward extreme views and those who champion them, and pose big, even career-ending risks for those who would reach across the partisan divide to try to wrestle with and solve big problems.

Play Devil’s Advocate – what are the three best arguments against expanding vote by mail?

The argument I understand the best is the one I actually bought into when I opposed expansion of the Oregon system as a state legislator in 1989. It’s the “civic ritual” argument, and losing the traditional polling place. But I realized we were confused a familiar — and by many, loved — ritual of democracy, with its essence: participation. And most Oregonians have created new, and also meaningful rituals — e.g, gathering their kids around the kitchen table and voting as a family.

It’s also theoretically possible that a big, major “event” or “disclosure” happens in the last few days before the election — and a large chunk of votes have already been cast. But this is an inevitable risk, in any system. (Remember that the big disclosures about Senator Bob Packwood, which ultimately led to his resignation in 1995, came out in the Washington Post just a week after he’d been re elected to a 6 year term. Another way to reduce the risk is for voters to not simply fill out and return the ballot they day they get it. I personally wait to deliver it in the last three days, in case a candidate I provisionally have chosen does something I think is unfair/desperate in a campaign’s closing days.  I’ve changed my vote several times based on that, and it’s interesting that about 50% of the votes of Oregonians in the November 6th election were received in the last four days of the cycle. In effect, voters are figuring out the “when” to release the ballot in ways that should keep candidates on their better behavior (I hope!).

You also do need additional systems in place to ensure the integrity of the system. The Clackamas county problem was actually not a “voting by mail” issue, but one that has to do with the processing of paper ballots, in any system. But we need to constantly learn and improve, based on experience. No system is perfect, and immune to any fraud. The key is constant vigilance and improvement in the process.

Which is more exciting being awarded Knope of the Week or being published in the New York Times?

Knope of the Week, for sure. I’ve had several op eds over the decades published in the New York Times, but never before a Knope award. But when do I get that walk on appearance with Amy Poehler on Parks and Rec; wasn’t that part of the deal?

You focused on vote by mail but does online voting eventually fall into this discussion?

Perhaps; what I used to say back in the 1990s — the “early days” of internet — was that it’s hard enough to move from a “3rd century B.C. voting system” (the Athenian forum) to an 18th century system based on the US Postal Service. It might take a few years to get to the 21st century!

It’s true that the internet could also be a “delivery channel” for ballots; indeed, my college age son, who’s in Morrocco this fall, essentially voted by applying for a ballot online, downloading it, then scanning it and returning it via the internet. Many military personnel do the same. I think it’s also interesting that many private organizations are now allowing “voting” through this channel, for things like corporate and organizational boards.

But there are still significant security and ballot integrity issues with this, as a pilot project done by the U.S. military has revealed. But I can definitely forsee a day when a voter can say, “I prefer delivery via the internet for the ballot — and I’d like to actually “cast” my ballot that way, too.”

It was always so exciting and a bit of adventure in going to the polling place when we were children. Are our children missing out by not having the voting booth experience?

Having taken small children to the polling place while I was Secretary of State, it’s often a lot more meaningful in the telling than the doing! “Why are we here… I’m hungry….why do we have to wait in line…..”

I also find it interesting that many Oregonians have told me that they’ve been devising new civic rituals, that often involve their children around the kitchen table, going through the voter’s pamphlet, and having the chance to talk about and discuss the election in a far more meaningful way than if you simply drag your child into the polling booth while others are waiting for you to get done. We are constantly creating new rituals, and I think this is a meaningful one, too, albeit a more private one.

Being such a proponent of vote by mail and a visionary in establishing the Oregon system, what are your emotions/thoughts when you get your ballot in the mail?

Well, first I thank Norma Paulus! She was the Republican Secretary of State who really got the vote by mail ball rolling in the 1980s, and worked hard to help pass the 1998 ballot measure. We started down this path more than 25 years ago, when we discovered that turnout in special elections was hitting rock bottom; indeed, one school bond election passed by just a 2-0 margin. (Since the two voters who cast ballots signed the poll book, it was  a public record who voted — even though the disclosure of said arguably “violated” the secrecy of the ballot!). Norma asked, “Isn’t there a better way?” and though it took a long time and the hard work of her and the county clerks, it happened. They really deserve the credit; I was honored to have the chance to help finish the journey.

What will voting look like in five years? In Oregon? Rest of the U.S?

It may well look the same, or even more confusing! In almost 15 years, only one state — Washington — has followed Oregon’s lead. Everywhere else, absentee ballot use — and other “early voting” strategies — have grown. But as we discovered in the mid 1990s, at a certain point you reach the “worst of both worlds.” By 1996, over half of all votes cast in elections were cast via absentee ballots — yet we had to print enough ballots to deal with every one of those voters deciding at the last minute to switch to the polls! And ensuring against double voting meant having to check every absentee ballot against the poll books. The result was much higher expensive, exasperated election officials, and voter confusion; we were essentially running “dual elections” systems. In terms of “risk” and possible loss of integrity, it was the worst situation to be in.

I hope the other 48 states can learn from this experience, and essentially “leap frog” over that stage and go directly to what I know call a “Universal Ballot Delivery system.” Indeed, I’m toying with the need to re name the whole system, since “Voting by Mail” only really refers to the 80% or so of ballots that are also returned via the mail. The other 20% of ballots are actually returned in person (including mine). And the key to Oregon’s success with voter turnout is that EVERY registered voter is automatically sent the ballot; they don’t have to physically go to the ballot (in a polling place), or even have to specifically request an absentee ballot. It’s done without asking — which I think is why our turnout is significantly higher. Even in states with 50% of the voters now choosing the absentee route, it’s logical to assume that the vast majority of them would have voted regardless. They’re “motivated voters” who have simply opted for the more convenient route, because they now have the choice. But in terms of a “net gain” in turnout, there isn’t as much. (By the way, it’s that apparent absence of a dramatic turnout effect, in the states that are increasingly using “early voting strategies,” that some vote by mail opponents cite in disparaging Oregon’s system. It’s a glaring logical fallacy — but that often doesn’t stand in people’s way if they want to criticize something.

What is a realistic goal for voter turnout?

Since the Oregon system went live in 2000, we’ve had between 80-85% turnout of registered voters in most presidential elections, and about 70% in non presidential elections. Our primary election turnouts have been about 40% — but since our primaries are “closed” and non affiliated/ independent voters are locked out, this is more impressive than it looks. (Among registered Ds and Rs who can participate in the highest profile races, our turnout in 2010 was 45%, and in 2008’s presidential primary it was well over 70%!

These numbers are achievable everywhere. Oregon is not a “special case” of “super-charged civic engagement.” Maybe we had such an “edge” in the 1960s and 1970s — though that might have been because of our “voter friendly demographics.” We were almost exclusively white, above national income, and better educated than the typical state — all factors that correlate strongly with higher civic engagement, including voting. Today, we’re significantly below the national average in income, and in the middle with education levels. The significant increase since 1990 of our non-white population — it’s now almost 20%, compared to about 6% in 1990 — has been wonderful for Oregon’s diversity. But it has made Oregon look a lot more like other states — where rather than a 70% turnout, they have turnouts in the 45-50% range.

Every 10% increase in general election turnout translates into about 20 million voters across the U.S. A 25% increase would be closer to 50 million. I would like to see every state adopt “Universal Ballot Delivery by mail” — which really describes our system more fully and accurately — and I think if they did, every state could meet or come close to Oregon’s performance. And some states could actually exceed it, such as Minnesota. (Where they literally hold elections in months where blizzards have been known to dump several feet of snow!).

How would you describe those who receive their ballot in the mail and choose not to participate in the democratic process? Lazy? Indifferent? Too busy?

Even in Oregon’s system, many still don’t vote, and that’s unfortunate. But many are simply overwhelmed with the vagaries and demands of daily life, or see little connection to their situation and politics. Many are turned off by what so much of politics has devolved to — and I do understand that feeling (though obviously I feel strongly that people should vote; how else do you even have a shot at making things better). But I also think a lot of citizens are plain simply bored by it all. So much of political discourse is either angry and partisan — or vacuous and meaningless. “My first priority is jobs!” was one of the most uttered phrases in Campaign 2012; uh, duh, of course it should be! But that sure doesn’t tell me much about what a politician would actually do about the problem. Same with so many other empty phrases that go marching across the landscape in search of an idea — but show up with great frequency in political advertising.

At what level of government can an elected official make the most difference?

I believe people can make a tangible difference at every level. My own experience to date has just been with the state level, at least as an elected official. I could work on broad policy initiatives, and make a difference — but it was obviously more removed than helping get a street paved, or a new building permitted. I do find myself advising young people interested in Washington D.C. — where I spent several years as a reporter in the 1980s — that they should first look to working at the local government level, where most citizens still have a fair amount of trust in the good intentions (and competence) of their elected officials and government managers.

Give us three reading recommendations for political books.

  • Robert Caro’s the Power Broker, his study of Robert Moses in the 1970s, long before he started the LBJ series that has become his crowning achievement. (And also well worth reading). The Power Broker I think is still the best book about how legislating, politics, and public administration is actually done.
  • Doris Kearns Godwin’s “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln and his deft handling of the Cabinet he constructed is a great lesson in how to get those who don’t always agree with you — and often hate each other — to work constructively together for the common good.
  • Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” (1975) about the Boston school busing crisis is a wonderful study of how politics and policy intersect with people’s lives and traditions (and yes, prejudices at times) at the neighborhood and family level.
  • And shouldn’t David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” — about the combination of hubris, group think, and arrogance that led to our tragic involvement in Vietnam — be on everyone’s list, too?

But that’s at least 5 — and I should stop there, though I know I’ve left many other worthy books out.

What’s on your recently played list on your iPod?

True confession time; I’m IPod less. The last CD I listened to was Neil Young’s Prarie Wind. Like Bob Dylan, I think Neil Young’s a musical genius; just don’t ask me to try to explain even half of what they’ve done in their careers!

You clearly have a way with words and articulating an argument, what is next for you when it comes to writing and publishing research?

On a personal level, I want to find the time to do more writing, weighing in on issues that I think often don’t get framed correctly (or at all). In addition to the recent piece I’ve done on Vote by Mail, I’m working on an article that not only explains how the Medicare system actually works, but explains how it (and not necessarily Medicaid) is a direct threat to both state and local government’s ability to deliver basic services in the years ahead, if it’s left unchanged. I was greatly disappointed tha tthe presidential race was pretty devoid of an intelligent conversation about Medicare reform. While I disagree with the particular plan that Republican Paul Ryan put forward, I give him some credit for taking the political risk of broaching the topic. The current system is simply unsustainable — but because most people have grand illusions about how it works (for instance, they think it’s all paid for by the payroll tax), we may not realize it until it’s too late.

Tell our readers three achievements they should know about the Center for Public Service.

The mission of the Center for Public Service (CPS) is to connect the assets of the Hatfield school of government – faculty, students, various program s– with the real world needs of public service practitioners, in government and the non profit sector. This “pracademic” focus — not a real word, but helpful in describing our orientation — is reflected in a number of things. The three I’d highlight here are:

  • Our Executive Master of Public Administration program (EMPA) focuses on helping full time working professionals obtain a fully accredited Master’s degree without interrupting their work and careers. It’s the only such program between Seattle and the Bay area, and in the past two years we’ve doubled the participation in this cohort-based program, which meets on alternating Saturdays (3 full days per course), and now includes a Washington DC. based course and an international experience. (Students last year studied public administration in Vietnam or South Korea)
  • Our “Next Generation Initiative” was recently launched, including the long standing “Oregon Fellows” program and a new, “Hatfield Resident Fellows program.” The Oregon Fellows program recruits students from about 30 outstanding graduate programs across the U.S. — not just Portland State but institutions like University of Michigan, Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke. Sponsors have students available to them full time for 10 weeks during their summer breaks. The Hatfield Fellows program targets the same “talent pool” but focuses on recent graduates, who have a much longer stint as Fellows (32 weeks) while they also take some post-graduate courses at PSU. The Fellows programs are a way to attract exceptional talent into public service, and gives government and non profit leaders a chance to work with these highly motivated men and women at the beginning of their careers. Last year, we had more than 25 participate in the program.


  • The Center’s “Research and consulting” function has grown significantly in recent years. Among our recent reports, published or soon to be: helping small to mid sized jurisdictions identify best practices and high ROI opportunities for sustainable municipal operations; a study of the “Total Employer Cost of Compensation” for 22 jurisdictions, that detailed the true costs of salary as well as non-salary elements of compensation (more than 50 discreet items); and an analysis of the effect of Clackamas county’s pilot program to move to a four day work week for about half it’s employees. High quality, independent research is an essential part of the Center’s mission, and we look forward to continuing to do this work for a wide range of our public service partners.

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