SALEM, Ore. – While other states pursue high-tech voting machines in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the Florida fiasco of 2000, Oregon proudly continues with its uniquely low-tech system of voting by mail.
Oregon abolished polling-place elections in 1998. The result is that Election Day 2004 in Oregon will actually be a 19-day affair that begins Friday with 2 million ballots being sent to the homes of registered voters.
They can then cast their ballots in the comfort of their own home and on their own timetable before mailing them back tead of Oregon, a battleground state won by Democrat Al Gore (search) in 2000.
"Oregon has been proselytizing this system aggressively, but there is unease about it" in other states, said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (search) in Washington, D.C.
Ornstein and other analysts worry about fraud, as well as the potential for coercion that arises when family members fill out ballots together at home.
"Voting at a polling place provides a zone of privacy," he said. "Oregon's culture may not encourage corrupt activities, but that doesn't stop husbands looking over the shoulders of their wives while they are voting."
State officials say elections have been squeaky clean, and they tout the convenience of the system.
"People can actually study their voting materials, and they can mark their ballots at the kitchen table," Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said. "It's a wonderful recognition of people's busy lives."
Plus, vote-by-mail has been successful in boosting voter turnout and reducing election costs, Bradbury said.
Nancy Dunn, a health care consultant and registered voter, is an enthusiastic supporter of vote-by-mail.
"I love it," the Salem resident said. "I can sit on my couch, in the quiet of my own home, and not feel pressured to vote quickly. You can take your time and vote at your own convenience."
Some other states are moving in the same direction.
Washington state, for example, allows voters to become "permanent absentees" and sign up to receive ballots by mail. Almost 70 percent of that state's voters cast mail-in ballots in 2000.
Vote-by-mail had been used in local elections around Oregon since the early 1980s, but the state's voters decided in 1998 to scrap polling place elections altogether.
Critics of Oregon's system say it is open to abuse because it allows political campaigns to keep track of which voters cast ballots during the 19-day voting period. It is perfectly legal for political parties to contact people who have not voted yet and to offer to deliver their ballots for them to local election offices.
For example, America Coming Together, a group backing Democrat John Kerry, plans to send out teams of volunteers to collect ballots from voters the group has identified or registered.
"We don't have evidence of fraud in the system, but it's a real concern," said Bill Lunch, who teaches political science at Oregon State University.