Why can’t Michigan vote like Oregon?

Remember how, a few months ago, I posted video of myself eating a fried pie on the street in Portland, while talking with a guy about the plotting of the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Well, that guy… a former Michigander by the name of Dave Miller… has asked that I share the following article, which he apparently pecked out late last night on his cell phone, while his wife slept beside him, in bed.

Hello Readers of Mark Maynard.com.

You guys need a nickname, a nomme de guerre. Like tea baggers, dittoheads, or birthers. The Church of England produced the puritans. Arsenio had the dog pound. Let me throw a couple of ideas out there.

Ball Shavers

We’ll vote later.

I’m writing to spread the word about how voting is done in Oregon. I moved there about ten years ago, and have been meaning to enlighten the Ball Shavers with a guest post pretty much since then.

In Oregon there are no polling stations to have to locate. There are no archaic machines to have to operate. Election day is a party where all sides gather to see the results, not to wait in line, worrying that you’re name isn’t on the list when you finally reach the front. Everyone receives their official ballot roughly a month before election day, and can fill it out and return it at their leisure. You can drop it in any mailbox, and, if you can’t afford the stamp, you can take it to any public library. If the locations of local libraries are unknown to you, there are also drop boxes strategically located near places that you might frequent.

Here’s how it works: Before every election, voters are mailed a ballot package containing the scantron ballot, two envelopes, and a voters guide.

The envelope labeled “secret” is where your completed ballot goes. These envelopes have no identifying information about you. At the processing station, I picture my ballot anonymously piled with others being torn open and fed into the scanning machines.

The other envelope has your voter registration information printed on it and a brief statement you swear to with your signature. This is the envelope that you place your secret envelope into. When this envelope arrives at the processing station, your registration info is verified and your signature is matched to the signature you provided when you registered to vote. If all is good, it is opened and your secret envelope is thrown on the pile.

This is a great system because it makes voting convenient and completely low stress. While filling out my ballot, if I have a question about a candidate or measure, I can stop, research online, go sit on the can to ponder, talk things over with friends or coworkers, sleep on it, pick it up again the next day.

That’s pretty awesome, but wait, there’s more. The voter’s guide that gets sent with the ballot is great reading. Really. It contains photos and bios of all of the candidates. Every candidate gets a 1/2 page to make their case. Obama, Romney, the 14th District Water Commissioner candidates, and the homeless guy running for Mayor all get the exact same amount of space, in the same plain format — fonts, colors, and layout — to make their argument for your vote.

Each ballot measure or initiative is also included in the guide. The full text, a plain language summary, what a “yes” vote means, what a “no” vote means, and any extra information, like the projected financial impact on the budget of the related government entity.

Of course you can imagine that this could be a little dry. And I’m a social creature, not policy analyst. I want to know what other people think! After the official description of the measure is the arguments section. Anyone who can scrape up $500 can have their 1/2 page argument printed in the guide. Like in the candidate section, every entry is given the same plain layout, fonts, and colors. And every argument is marked as “In Favor Of” or “Opposed To”.

In recent years a couple of intrepid entrepreneurs have gotten measures on the ballot to legalize casinos in areas other than on Indian reservations. A group called “Viva Las Portland” supports them with their argument in favor of the measures. Here’s a clip:

“Long ago Oregon’s pioneers placed a big bet when they decided to risk everything, travel the Oregon trail, and settle our great state.

Today we are asking voters to make another risky bet by voting YES to the creation of a mega-casino in the Portland metro region. It is time we amended our state constitution so that one day we can have privately run, Las Vegas-style casinos in every community in our state.

Portland buys local, eats local, and drinks local. It’s time we gamble locally. These measures will create desperately needed opportunities for Portland’s struggling pawn shops, bankruptcy attorneys, and repo men. Plus, by reducing air travel to Nevada, we’ll cut our region’s carbon footprint.”

Ha! Most of the arguments are legitimate, however, and it’s interesting to see which measures unions and other professional groups endorse and why.

I’m quite often surprised by some perspectives. There is a marijuana legalization measure that is being opposed on the grounds that it will put current small growers out of business. Family farms that have been passed down through the generations, who are “protected” by the current laws, it’s argued, will be trampled by big agribusiness, who will move in if this measure passes.

If Oregon’s voting system is the final straw to get you to move to Portland, we welcome you. There is always room for more good liberal Maytards.

And, now, with the opposing view, I give you Deanna Swenson, the Oregon election worker currently facing a criminal investigation for allegedly altering the ballots submitted by way of this perfect system that Dave describes, to benefit Republican candidates.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s a compelling idea. It does seem to me, however, that there would be opportunity for fraud, as illustrated by the above story. I suppose, however, that there’s always opportunity for fraud, regardless of the system that’s being used. Paper ballots can be shredded. Electronic voting machines, as we’ve seen, can be hacked. The bigger issue for me, if we started voting this way, would be the loss of the communal feeling that I get when I stand in line on Election Day, surrounded by my neighbors. While I can see the appeal of filling the form out at home, in my pajamas, eating fried pies, I think I’d miss standing in line, surrounded by young and old Ypsilantians of all races, colors and creeds, feeling like a member of a real, authentic community. And I just don’t think driving up to a metal box outside of a McDonalds, and tossing in my envelope, would give me the same sense of fulfillment and civic pride. I don’t want voting to become just one more form that I need to fill out and drop in the mail, like my taxes. But, maybe there’s some kind of hybrid system that we could agree to, that would serve all of our needs. The important thing, I think, is that we initiate a serious dialogue about election reform that addresses everything from campaign finance to electronic voting, and from the possibility of setting nationwide standards to the elimination of the electoral college. We’ve been putting it off long enough.

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  1. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Mark, like you, I really enjoy the social experience of going to the polls on election day, hanging with neighbors in line (and the ones handing out flyers outside), chatting with the pollworkers, etc.

    However, I recognize that I’m privileged to have a flexible work schedule, to not be working a second job, to not have to worry about child care (or having my kids stand in line in the cold for hours), and to have a polling place where there’s enough space inside for the people in line to stay warm. So it’s pretty darn easy for me to focus on the pieces of voting in person on election that I enjoy.

    So I’m definitely in favor of no-reason-required absentee/early voting; I’d be interested in letting people receive their actual ballots ahead of time, so they could fill them out in leisure at home, with all of their research at hand, and bring them in on election day if they like; and I think the printed voter guide provided with Oregon ballots is pretty brilliant. All of these would make it easier for people to vote, and probably increase turnout. (Which might be a reason why we should elect a non-Republican Secretary of State for a change.)

  2. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I think that all precincts should be required to send a copy of the ballot out at least two weeks before the election date.

    Our local township had two mileage proposals on the ballot that no one in the township even knew about. It is impossible to make informed decisions if one doesn’t know what’s on the ballot!

    That said, I’m also into being able to see my fellow residents at the polling place. It’s the only chance we get out here.

  3. Edward
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I’d like to think that most sane people could agree that it makes sense, at the very least, to make early voting easier for those of us who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to vote on election day. This would broaden participation, and keep lines shorter, while still retaining the social aspects of voting on election day which many of us value. Unfortunately, there are many who do not see increased participation as a good thing, as those mothers working two jobs aren’t likely to vote for their party. The sad truth is that one party does not want those poor people who work two jobs to vote.

  4. anonymous
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    They call us Ypsituckians.

  5. Dave Miller
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I agree with you about the sense of community. I’ve always thought that election day should be a national holiday. Seems much more important than, say, Thanksgiving. However, locating my polling place and waiting in line with others isn’t something I miss. That act, once it’s gone, seems like nothing but a hassle. And the cheap plastic temporary voting stations balanced on spindly removable legs always seemed unworthy of their important job.

    Also, when I voted in Michigan, I would often find myself unsatisfied with my knowledge of a candidate or measure only at the moment that I had to choose an oval to fill in. Of course it was too late to learn more standing there in the booth, so I’d pick a random Democrat. Or take a guess at what a yes or no really meant for a measure. This is my failing of course, but I like the ability to research as I actually fill out the ballot. There are no surprises.

    The sense of community here happens via the everyday social modes: conversation with friends and coworkers during the month before the election about something funny or interesting in the voters guide, announcing that you’re halfway done with your ballot but can’t decide on issue X, or announcing that you voted last night prompting others to think “Shit, I’ve only got a week left, gotta get that done.”

    When I did actually place my ballot in the ballot box whose official location is “Pioneer Square between Starbucks and Nordstroms” an SUV pulled up and I saw that the driver had a dilemma in that the box was ten feet away from the street yet she was in a moving lane of downtown traffic. She couldn’t just lean out the window and pop her envelope in. My chest swelled with pride as I assisted her in executing our collective duty. I, on foot, showed her my ballot and extended my hand to collect hers so that she wouldn’t have to get out of her car to vote.

    For the primary in May, my wife was excited about a particular mayoral candidate and wanted to cast her vote. Unfortunately she decided this at 7:55pm the day of the election. The ballot boxes close at 8. Again, I stepped up to assist. We filled in the single oval for that race, I hopped in the car and violated all sorts of traffic laws speeding toward our library branch. I caught the poll worker as she was wheeling the ballot bin in the door. She smiled and paused to let me toss my wife’s ballot onto the pile. This was possible because the rest of the city had voted weeks earlier.

    My wife’s chosen candidate did well enough to qualify for the election, but was recently revealed to have something like a dozen driver’s license suspensions over the years and an arrest for battery against a woman he punched in college. This brings up a contradiction often present in elections that serves to temper my enthusiasm for voting. The right to vote in an election protects us from tyranny the rest of the world suffers, but sometimes the quality of candidates is so low that taking time to vote for one or the other feels like a waste of effort.

    I forgot to mention in the post that you can go online and verify that your vote was counted. Not who it was for, but just that it made it to the counting station and was valid. If you start early, you actually have time to straighten out problems before the point is made moot by election day having passed.

    Regarding fraud, no matter how your state collects the ballots, you have to trust the people who carry them away in a box and count them. Google says Michigan may have a problem here too:


    Oregon’s voter participation level is in the top ten, but not definitively higher than other states who have traditional voting. So as great as this system is, there are likely other factors that have a bigger impact on turnout.

  6. Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m shocked that anyone actually LIKES standing in line. For my part, I get plenty of line-standing time waiting at the grocery store, at the bank/credit union, etc. I don’t need a massive dose of it on election day to feel civic engagement.

  7. John Galt
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    You know who else had line? Soviet Russia. We should open up the polls to the free market and let people sell their votes. No more lines. Everyone wins.

  8. anonymous
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    When I did actually place my ballot in the ballot box whose official location is “Pioneer Square between Starbucks and Nordstroms” an SUV pulled up and I saw that the driver had a dilemma in that the box was ten feet away from the street yet she was in a moving lane of downtown traffic. She couldn’t just lean out the window and pop her envelope in. My chest swelled with pride as I assisted her in executing our collective duty. I, on foot, showed her my ballot and extended my hand to collect hers so that she wouldn’t have to get out of her car to vote.

    Chances are that an SUV driver who couldn’t be bothered to walk ten feet and vote probably would have been voting Republican. You should have taken her ballot and run away with it.

  9. Posted November 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    “Chances are that an SUV driver who couldn’t be bothered to walk ten feet and vote probably would have been voting Republican.”

    Now that’s hilarious!

  10. anonymous
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Perhaps worth considering as we move forward, no?

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