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Oregon Tries Voting by Mail

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Imagine staying at home to vote instead of going to a drab polling place. You could sip coffee in your robe and slippers while filling out your mail-in ballot. Or you could exercise your rights as a citizen while watching TV.

Oregon voters are being given that opportunity in the nation's first all vote-by-mail regular primary election.

Ballots were sent out April 28 to 1.8 million voters and have to be returned to local election offices by May 16, when they will be counted.

The mail-in balloting is part of a growing effort around the country to boost voter turnout. Arizona's Democrats conducted the nation's first Internet primary earlier this year.

The mail ballot is nothing new for Oregonians.

Since the early 1980s, they have voted by mail in local elections and special statewide elections — such as in January 1996, when they filled the Senate seat left vacant when Bob Packwood resigned over sexual harassment allegations. The mail ballot has also been used in Oregon for referendums.

But until now, the mail ballot has not been used in a regularly scheduled primary or general election.

Over the years, Oregonians have become more and more comfortable with the idea of voting at home. Two years ago, they voted to abolish the traditional polling place in all statewide elections in favor of the mail ballot.

In the balloting now under way, Oregon voters will say who they want as the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, select nominees in various state and local races, and decide the fate of six statewide ballot measures. They will vote by mail again in the November election.

``I like to vote while I'm watching TV,'' said Richard Christofferson, a retired pharmacist in Salem. ``It means I don't have to drive around and look for a parking place at the polls. It only costs 33 cents for the stamp.''

His wife, Lois, said she likes mail voting because the state routinely votes on lots of ballot measures — there could be as many as 30 on the November ballot — and she wants to spend her time considering all of them.

``With vote-by-mail, I don't feel like I have to hurry through them the way I do at a polling place,'' she said.

Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said vote-by-mail has increased turnout in the average Oregon election by about 6 percentage points.

``Everywhere in the country, not just in Oregon, people are pretty pressed for time,'' he said. ``The benefit of vote by mail is that you can sit at your kitchen table with your ballot and sort through it when you do have the time.''

Mail-in balloting has raised fears that a husband might bully his wife into voting a certain way or that someone could cast more than one ballot.

``Vote-by-mail is a terminally bad idea, because it gets rid of the secret ballot and leads to the likelihood of a pressured vote,'' said Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based research group.

Election officials said there is little chance of fraud. Voters are required to sign the ballot envelope, and that's checked against the signature on their voter registration card.

Priscilla Southwell, head of political science at the University of Oregon, said there is no documented evidence of any coercion going on.

``If incidents of `undue influence' were commonplace, they would have cropped up by now,'' she said.

There's no doubt that vote by mail has changed the look and feel of Oregon elections.

Instead of doing a hand-shaking, baby-kissing, advertising blitz in the last few days before an election, candidates have to campaign at full tilt for about a month because the ballots are in people's hands for nearly three weeks and voters are free to send them in at any time.

``It tests the financial and physical stamina of every campaign,'' said Dan Lavey, a GOP consultant.

Local election officials love vote-by-mail, mainly because it is easier and cheaper. The secretary of state's office estimates that, statewide, mail voting reduces the cost of elections by more than $3 million.

Marion County Clerk Al Davidson said that in past elections, he had to hire 700 people to run 160 polling places. This time, he said, he plans to hire 40 people to run the vote-tallying operation at a single location.

For Connie Ryan, a nurse at Salem Hospital, the main attraction is convenience.

``I like to grab a cup of coffee and then take the time to sit at my desk at home and fill out my ballot,'' Ryan said. ``They never offered me a cup of coffee at the polling places.''
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