Oregon, the nation's first state to conduct all elections by mail, would join the ranks of other states to accept ballots postmarked by election day under legislation heard Thursday, Feb. 11.
House bills 2226 and 2687, heard by the House Rules Committee, are nearly identical, except that HB 2226 by Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, would allow third-party collection of ballots only on election day itself.
Oregon now requires mail ballots to be in the hands of county elections officials by 8 p.m. election day. Postmarks do not count, unlike the practice in Washington, California, Nevada, 11 other states and Washington, D.C., according to a 2020 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four other states require a postmark the day before the election.
Under the proposed change, county officials would have to receive postmarked ballots no later than seven days after the election. States with similar laws have differing deadlines.
A count for the Nov. 3 general election is not final, but in Oregon's 2016 and 2018 general elections, nearly half a million of the ballots ultimately counted were turned in on the final day, either by mail or drop boxes maintained by the 36 counties.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, the state's chief elections officer, says it's time to end the confusion.
"We've all seen it every election cycle," Fagan said at a hearing. "The news media, the county clerks, the secretary of state's office, people in organizations, various people just guessing have to constantly estimate when is the unofficial last day to mail your ballot. It just creates confusion typically on those last five days before an election."
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, the chief sponsor of HB 2687, said 130 voters in Marion County alone cast ballots that did not count because they were received after the Nov. 3 election.
"That is what this bill is trying to solve," he said.
Under Oregon law, ballots are mailed to voters 14 to 18 days before the election date. Because of uncertainties raised about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service — although USPS said in a year-end report that it delivered 99.89% of mail from voters to elections officials on time — more than the usual number of voters returned their ballots early.
"We can and do encourage people to vote early," Isabela Villareal, who spoke for the Next Up Action Project, said. "But that really does not solve the problem.
"We know of Oregonians who become nonvoters and do not cast their ballots," Villareal, who spoke for the former Bus Project, said. "They think they are too late to mail their ballots. and dropping off their ballots is a barrier due to mobility, transportation, lack of available drop-off locations, and confusion over mailing deadlines."
Among the organizations endorsing HB 2687 were the League of Women Voters of Oregon and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon.
Although she did not testify at the hearing, Gov. Kate Brown — herself a former secretary of state — identified election-day postmarks in her state of the state address as one of her three priorities to expand access to voting.
The others are election-day voter registration, which is proposed in House Joint Resolution 11, and use of information from agencies other than the Driver and Motor Vehicle (DMV) Services Division to register voters automatically. Many Oregonians do not drive or own cars. (That bill was not up for a hearing.)
House Joint Resolution 11, which requires a statewide election, would amend the Oregon Constitution to remove the 20-day deadline that voters put there in 1986. They did so after the attempted Rajneeshee takeover in Wasco County, although county and state officials managed to thwart irregular voter registrations.
Oregon had election-day voter registration from 1977 to 1985, when lawmakers changed the deadline to the day before an election.
Also heard by the committee in addition to election-day postmarks and the constitutional change was House Bill 2679, which would allow some 17-year-olds to vote in party primaries if they turn 18 by the general election and if the political party they affiliate with allows them to do so by rule.
Rep, Jack Zika, R-Redmond, asked what would happen to election timelines if the Legislature allows for election-day postmarked ballots to count. Zika won his 2018 primary by just two votes of around 7,500 cast. Rayfield said he would propose a technical amendment to his bill to adjust the timelines.
Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen, speaking for nonpartisan county elections officials, expressed reservations about the proposed changes. Democrats command supermajorities in both chambers, so they can pass them without Republican votes. They can only refer a constitutional change to voters, however.
"We don't think the system is broken," Van Bergen said in response to a question by House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, who sits on the House Rules Committee. "We think there are opportunities for improvement."