Stateline Story

Oregon's Primary Unlike Any Other

THE VOTE IS IN THE MAIL

Oregon election officials' biggest concern in this year's May 20 primary was whether voters would remember that the price of a stamp went up a penny May 12, just as they began mailing back their ballots.

But not to worry: Oregon counties reached an agreement with local post offices to deliver the ballots without delay, even if postage is a penny short below the new 42-cent rate.

"The federal government sadly decided to schedule a rate change in the middle of our election," said Scott Moore, a spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

Oregon's one-of-a-kind system works this way. Ballot packages are automatically mailed to all registered voters from the 14th to the 18th day before an election. After a voter makes his or her selections, the ballot is placed first in a "secrecy envelope," which is then sealed in a pre-addressed return envelope. Voters must sign the return envelope, verifying that the return envelope has the correct name and current address.

Voters can mail their ballots or drop them off at any county election office or any designated drop site in the state. Either way, the ballot must be received not just postmarked, in any county election office or designated drop site by 8 p.m. on election night. Ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. will not be counted.

To ensure confidentiality, ballots are separated from return envelopes before the ballots are inspected. Unofficial election results will be available after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Like other states during this historic presidential election year, Oregon has seen a spike in the number of registered voters - to 2.64 million from 1.86 million in 2004. More than 270,000 Oregonians have already cast their ballots for the primary, Moore said.

Oregon started experimenting with the mail-in vote in 1981, when the Legislature approved a pilot program for local elections. Voters in 1998 overwhelmingly endorsed a ballot measure expanding vote by mail to all general and primary elections. In the November 2006 general election, Oregon's vote by mail had a 70 percent turnout.

Oregon Democrats are in the unfathomable position of voting in a still-contested presidential primary May 20, but their votes also stand out for another reason.

Oregonians won't be waiting in long lines or worrying about voting machines malfunctioning at the polls, because they live in the only state in the country where all the voting is done by mail.

Democrats voting in this primary also will settle on a nominee for secretary of state, Oregon's No. 2 politician after the governor and the official in charge of overseeing that one-of-kind voting system.

Up until 2000, secretaries of state were relatively obscure statewide officials. That changed when then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris made national news for her series of decisions regarding the Florida recount in the nation's tightest presidential race while serving as co-chair for George W. Bush's campaign in the state.

In Oregon, the post is more high-profile and is more powerful than most. Oregon is one of only three states that designate the secretary of state as the first in line to succeed the governor. (Arizona and Wyoming are the others, and neither has elections this year.)

David W. Winder, a political science professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia who has researched lieutenant governors, said the arrangement in Oregon may confuse voters who may be unaware that the person they are selecting to oversee elections also is second in command.

"It would be better to have a lieutenant governor," he said. A lieutenant governor typically has more time to learn statewide duties and be more prepared to step in as governor than the secretary of state who is busy with election issues and business licensing requirements, he said.

Oregon is one of six states that have secretary of state races this year and one of two that are wide open. Oregon's current secretary of state, Bill Bradbury (D), is barred from running again because of term limits. In West Virginia, voters will select a new secretary of state to replace retiring Betty Ireland (R), who was the first woman to be elected to the state's executive branch of government. Incumbents are running for re-election in Missouri, Montana, North Carolina and Vermont.

In Oregon, the secretary of state race is coming down as a contest between state senators and former TV personalities. Kate Brown, the state Senate majority leader, and Rick Metsger, a state senator and former TV anchorman, are in a dead heat for the Democratic lead, according to results of a poll by Davis, Hibbits & Midghall of Portland, released May 14. Rick Dancer, a former TV news anchor, is the only Republican running for the post.

In past years, the Oregon secretary of state perch has been used as a launching pad for higher office. "A number of secretaries of state here have gone on to become governor," said Bill Lunch, chair of Oregon State University's political science department. 

  UPCOMING PRIMARIES
Sources: Stateline.org reporting

Republican Mark Hatfield, who served 30 years in the U.S. Senate until 1996, was secretary of state before being governor in the 1960s. Thomas Lawson McCall also had a stint as secretary of state before serving two terms as governor from 1967 to 1975, and Barbara Roberts (D) won two terms as secretary of state before becoming Oregon's first woman governor in 1991.

One reason the position has higher visibility in Oregon is because of the large number of ballot measures that voters try to put on the ballot, all of which must be certified by the secretary of state. In the relatively quiet 2007 election cycle, for example, Oregon voters tackled two high-profile measures: Oregonians rolled back unprecedented property rights they gave themselves in 2004 and handily defeated a proposal pushed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) to raise the state's cigarette tax to fund children's health care.

  2008 SECRETARIES OF STATE RACES
Sources: State election offices and Stateline.org reporting

Oregon's secretary of state also has wielded power by playing a crucial role in fierce redistricting battles to redraw lines for both the statehouse and the U.S. Congress in every cycle going back to the 1980s, Lunch said. The secretary of state was ultimately responsible for coming up with new lines for statehouse seats, when the Legislature couldn't agree, and the courts have often turned to the secretary's recommendations for congressional redistricting, he explained.

Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Oregon is highly unusual in this regard. Other than Arkansas and Washington state, in all other states, "the secretary of state has essentially no role" in redistricting, he said.

Oregon is expected to pick up an additional U.S. congressional seat after the 2010 Census, and whoever wins the secretary of state job could yet again play a pivotal role, Lunch said.

Three states (Alaska, Hawaii and Utah) don't have secretaries of state and instead tap their lieutenant governors to assume the duties. In nine states, the governor appoints the official while legislatures in Maine, New Hampshire and Tennessee make the selection.

Despite the power and visibility of the position in Oregon, the open race is largely overshadowed by the presidential race, which has brought all the candidates to the state recently, including John McCain, the Republican party's presumed nominee, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who won the endorsement of Oregon Gov. Kulongoski.

A U.S. Senate race also is garnering more attention that the statewide posts. Oregon Democrats hope to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith and will select either Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley or Democratic activist and strategist Steve Novick to challenge Smith in the fall.

"It could be tough for [statewide] candidates to compete with the visits of the presidential hopefuls," said Marc Siegel, spokesman for the Oregon Democratic Party, but he expected voters to soon "zero in on the other races."