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Oregon Escapes Notice in Voter Photo ID Battle

Don Ryan/Associated Press
A motorist drops off a ballot for the special election for Oregon's 1st district in Portland on Monday.

More than 200,000 people voted in this week’s special election in Oregon’s 1st district, and none of them had to show photo identification before they cast their ballot.

As the voter ID battle rages on in states across the country, the Beaver State hardly registers within the movement, even though it’s possible for an Oregonian to vote without ever having to show a photo ID.

“For people arguing about photo IDs, they just haven’t even taken Oregon under consideration,” one GOP strategist said.

The lack of national attention on Oregon is likely a combination of political circumstances and culture as well as a general lack of knowledge about the voting system in the Pacific Northwest.

Since 2000, elections in Oregon have been conducted entirely by mail, so there is no one to check IDs at a polling place because polling places do not exist. Ballots must be received (either by mail or at a drop site) by 8 p.m. PST on Election Day.

Voters aren’t required to have a photo ID to register to vote either. They can supply the last four digits of their Social Security number and a utility bill to get added to the voter rolls at least 21 days before the next election. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has been outspoken about the voter ID issue, but Oregon doesn’t appear to be a big concern, or any concern at all.

“These voter integrity initiatives are a state-by-state issue, and it’s up to any given state to determine what is best for them,” RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski told Roll Call. “In general, the RNC strives for as much transparency as possible in the process to ensure the integrity of our election process is protected.”

If Oregon were more of a battleground state, it would likely get more attention.

There’s more concern on the ground but not a lot of options for critics of the system to move forward. Nationally, Republicans appear to be focused on states where they control legislatures and governorships, which is not the case in Oregon. Anything that got through the state Legislature would likely be vetoed by a Democratic governor.

“We have lots of problems with vote-by-mail,” said Greg Leo, chief of staff at the Oregon Republican Party, citing misdelivered ballots, lack of accountability and the potential for fraud as some of the key concerns. But there isn’t an active effort to overturn the entire vote-by-mail system. State Rep. Kim Thatcher (R) introduced a bill that would install an e-verify system for voter registration to ensure only legal residents are able to vote.

“I just don’t think anyone’s really thought about it,” one national GOP consultant said about the lack of attention. “Oregon is not a place with a fraud culture, so we don’t feel a need to fight this stuff much there.”

“There is, at times, a naive sense that elections here are fair and clean and everyone will do the right thing. It speaks to our political culture,” veteran Portland-based GOP consultant Dan Lavey said. “It lends people to shy away from confronting these concerns.”

Officials at the Oregon secretary of state’s office are adamant about their measures to verify voters’ identities and combat fraud.

A voter casts a ballot by placing it in a secrecy envelope and signing it. Trained county election officials check that signature against the signature on file with the person’s voter registration. If there is a discrepancy, the voter is asked to come in to verify his ballot.

Vote-by-mail proponents believe strong penalties are key deterrents in eliminating abuse. Voter fraud is a class C felony and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Not all prosecutions reach that level. Last month, an 81-year-old man was sentenced to more than a year in prison and fined $5,000 for voting for both his deceased son and deceased brother.

But Lavey, a self-described longtime critic of vote-by-mail, is less concerned with fraud.

“The ability to influence the ballot they cast is far greater outside the secrecy of the polling place,” he said. That could be a growing argument if vote-by-mail and permanent absentee balloting continues to expand. 

Now the state of Washington has followed Oregon’s lead by going to a vote-by-mail system. It will be fascinating to watch whether that extends to other states and clashes with the voter ID movement.

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