Everything you ever wanted to know about Vote By Mail

My name is John Miller, and I live in Multnomah County, Oregon, USA. Oregonians have been voting by mail for decades. I don't mean voting by E-mail or by Web. I mean by Paper ballot, rcvd at my home address, marked by me, then returned to Elections HQ via USPS or via secure dropbox.

In a Nutshell: Voters must register and keep their resident address current. Registration requires gov approved identification and proof of residency. Only one ballot is sent to each registered voter. Each voter must sign the return envelope, which is bar-coded with a UNIQUE ID. The barcode number can be used ONCE, so any copied ballot would set off an alarm. Read below for process details.

Note: Some links may have faded since this was written. I'll run a link checker and fix or eliminate broken links ASAP — JM March/Novemebr 2022.

Getting your Ballot

Below is the envelope my 2020 (primary) ballot arrived in on April 29, 2020, for the election on May 19, 2020.

Ballot arrived in this envelope (obscured).
Back of Mailed Ballot envelope.

Returning your Ballot

Below is my 2019 Return Envelope, and optional Secrecy Sleeve, and my Official Ballot — all explained below. (In 2020, no postage is required for return mail.)

Ballot materials rcvd in USPS. (Voter's Guide not shown, mailed earlier.)

The optional Secrecy Sleeve's only function is to hide the ballot during the envelope opening process, for peeps who are paranoid and think an election worker will be able to spot who or what they voted for, and remember it for some reason. (2022 - Secrecy sleeve has been discontinued, deemed un-needed.)

How Vote By Mail Works in Oregon (According to John)

  • You register with the state. If you keep voting, and keep your address current, you do not need to re-register. If you die, you'll be de-registered. In Oregon, you are registered at the DMV when voting age. If you aren't a driver, you can get a DL for ID, and get registered.
  • You get a Voter's Guide early on, which lists all the candidates with list of supporters, and all the ballot measures with explanations and arguments for/against.
  • You get an email/text notification as your ballot packet is sent, so you know to expect it.
  • You get your ballot packet via USPS. A return envelope is provided.
  • You mark your ballot. You seal it in the envelope. You sign the outside of the envelope, on the back.
  • The optional Secrecy Sleeve simply hides the ballot during the envelope opening process. -- Since discontinued! 2022
  • You drop the sealed envelope in the mail or deposit it in a ballot dropbox.
  • You get an email/text notification when your ballot envelope has been rcvd, and another when it has been accepted.
  • Finally, You get an email/text notification when your ballot has been processed.

That's all there is to it from the voter's viewpoint.

Ballot Drop Boxes

Typical Ballot Drop Box, at Terwilliger & Barbur in SW Portland Oregon.

This is a STEEL ballot drop box anchored in concrete in a parking lot with traffic markings for drive-by drop-off. You can also walk up to it and deposit your ballot. I use this box, and I also go to one located in Pioneer Courthouse Square for pedestrians. Note the brackets on the right for holding a flag, which would indicate the Drop Box is open for use. This photo was taken during a non-voting period.

The slot is only wide enough for a ballot envelop.

Ballot Drop Box, Slot in Portland, Oregon.

Smaller lock boxes are distributed and picked up daily during the voting period, placed in Libraries and other public buildings where they can be monitored. (These locations varied during pandemic closures!)

Thread of tweets by Charlotte Hill (@hill_charlotte) on July 31, 2020)

As a former elections commissioner, I have witnessed firsthand the ins and outs of election administration.

I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned about how public officials protect our mail ballots and ensure the accuracy of every vote.

  1. You must be a registered, eligible voter to receive your ballot by mail.
  2. Your address must be current—mail ballots cannot be forwarded to another address.
  3. Ballots are printed on special card stock, and different jurisdictions have different races and initiatives on their ballot. This makes widespread duplication of ballots incredibly difficult.
  4. Your ballot must be returned inside an official government envelope that is personalized with your name and address and mailed directly to you. No other envelope will suffice.
  5. You must sign the outside of your return envelope, and that signature must match the signature on your registration record for your vote to count. Signature matching is very strict.
  6. Most states also mark each ballot with a unique bar code to identify each voter, making near-impossible to replicate.
  7. The USPS coordinates with elections departments and flags any ballots that appear to deviate in even minor ways from typical procedure.
  8. Attempting to forge a signature or coerce a voter is both a federal and state crime with stiff penalties.

She closes by citing this page on FactCheck.org from June 25, 2020: Trump’s Shaky Warning About Counterfeit Mail-In Ballots

Commonly Made Assertions

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) lists a number of Possible Disadvantages [Reference 1].

I comment on four of their stated disadvantages.

NCSL Disadvantage: Tradition — The civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school, church, or other polling place no longer exists.

My Response: Peeps can still gather in homes and communities to discuss ballot measures and candidates. That is what is important. My 'Tradition' is hand carrying my ballot envelope (via transit) to Pioneer Courthouse Square (Portland's Living Room) and depositing it in a permanent ballot dropbox, along with other Portlanders. I stay and savor the experience. Maybe go to Bailey's Taproom afterwards. LOL (Note: this can be done on Election Day or many days ahead of Election Day, 24x7.)

NCSL Disadvantage: Financial considerations — All-mail elections greatly increase printing costs for an election. Additionally, jurisdictions must have appropriate equipment to read paper ballots at a central location, and changing from electronic equipment to equipment that can scan paper ballots can be expensive.

My Response: It greatly increases printing costs? Hmmm, that depends on what peeps are doing when they vote in person, marking paper? Using a machine of some kind? Focusing on cost of paper ignores the fact that Polling stations have to be set up, attended, and compensated in most cases. Maintaining a whole fleet of depreciating Voting Machines is a major expense! On the other hand, a ballot scanning facility in each county is efficient. Each batch of ballots can be scanned (twice) by separate scanner groups... and those results must match! The resulting paper trail makes recounting possible. Marginally marked ballots can be examined to determine a voter's intention. And so on.

NCSL Disadvantage: Slow vote counting — All-Mail elections may slow down the vote counting process, especially if a state's policy is to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received and counted in the days and weeks after the election.

My First Response: The POSTMARK rule is STOOPID!! You must mail 'Ahead of Time' so your ballot arrives In Time. If you miss the mail-in deadline, you need to drop the envelope off at a library or other ballot drop location. No excuses, Folks!

My Second Response: People can vote as soon as they decided on issues and candidates — days or a week or more ahead. Those early ballots can be prepped and scanned, I believe, and resulting data kept in raw, un-tallied form until Election Eve when computers add them all up in a few seconds. Those early votes can be made public after 8pm, and augmented with additional votes as the evening progresses.

My Third Response: Some states have stupid rules that prevents them from even Opening or preparing ballots for Scanning before elections day or after the polls close. WTH? What's the reasoning behind that? Probably a hold-over from Absentee ballots. It can't be a matter of settling close races, since there are multiple races, and often local measures to be decided. Go figure.

NCSL also lists this Possible Disadvantage: Security — During all-mail elections (and absentee voting), coercion by family members or others might occur.

My Response: Security experts worry about the potential for spouses, parents or even community leaders to coerce voters to cast their mail-in ballots in a particular way, without the secrecy of a voting booth, though it’s not clear how widespread such problems are. Voting rates tend to be higher in places where voting by mail is routine, research shows.

My 2nd Response: An abusive spouse will coerce behavior and abuse regardless. Bastards.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here, I answer Rhetorical, Skeptical, and other questions from skeptics.

Skeptical Q: Why not just have a new National Holiday for Voting?

A: Invariably I see peeps on social media clamoring for a National Election holiday so people can vote. But, many folks need to work to keep systems alive even on holidays, right? Vote By Mail solves the problem nicely without a single day holiday and without all the problems we have getting to a limited number of polling places.

Skeptical Q: Will the gov't cover the cost of postage or send prepaid envolopes?

A: You can drop off your ballot in any library and at many other secure locations in each county. No postage required for that. CA is using prepaid. The Oregon Legislature recently approved a postage-paid return mailer. WA too? This is not a big deal, is it?? Certainly less expensive than setting up voting machines all over tarnation.

Skeptical Q: How would you be reassured that your vote was counted?

A: I get informed that ballot is being mailed to me. I get email/txt when my ballot has been rcvd. I get email/txt that ballot has been processed. On the counting side, handling is well defined, and monitored.

Skeptical Q: How do you insure fraud isn't happening?

A1: Marked Ballot is returned inside a sealed envelope. Outside of envelope must be signed. Signature has to match yours on file. Two peeps (unknown to each other) examine each ballot when it is rcvd.

A2: Paper ballots! Audit Trail. In Oregon, batches of ballots are scanned twice, by separate scanner (machine/staff) groups, and the results have to match. Well-designed, time tested.

A3: Let me hear these same skeptics explain how electronic voting machines work.

Skeptical Q: I know early voting occurs, but the whole country?

A: Each State in the USA handles elections. 'Counties' are in charge of counting votes. There is no National polling place or national vote. Somebody adds all the votes up, eh? Hmmm. Now we are talking about the Electoral College. To be continued...

Skeptical Q: Why was there was no outcry for Vote by Mail during the H1N1 epidemic?

Snarky A: H1N1 hit In the spring of 2009 — not exactly an election year. See the Difference?

Skeptical Q: Early voting doesn't take into account things that happen (scandals? illness? stupidity?) between your vote and election day.

Practical A: True. One never knows what might happen after you drop you ballot in the mail or drop box. But, if you are worried about this, you can actually vote on Election Day by sealing your ballot and dropping it at a dropbox before 8pm. That is about the best you can do. Good Luck!

Rhetorical Q: Is your government trustworthy?

A: Kind of basic all-round question, eh? Trump, trustworthy? Ok, I'll give you this one. No.

Rhetorical Q: Is USPS Funding in Peril?

Honest A: Who knows? See [8] below.

Ensuring the Accuracy of Your Vote!

(From the Oregon Voters' Pamphlet)

Oregon elections are secure. They're secure, not because there aren't any threats, but because we have detailed processes and procedures in place that are continuously evaluated to identify improvements and to develop contingency plans, ensuring our systems and our votes are secure.

Some security measures you may be more familiar with than others. For example the signature on your ballot return envelope is compared to the signatures in your voter registration record and your ballot is only counted if the signatures match. Another security feature is that all elections in Oregon must be conducted using a paper ballot.

Other security features which you may not be as familiar with include:

  • Every county elections office files a security plan with the Secretary of State every year that details the tools and processes they use to secure elections in their county.
  • Each day a copy of the voter registration database is backed up and saved to ensure accurate information is preserved should a bad actor gain access.
  • All voting systems (machines and programs) used to count ballots in Oregon have been certified by a federally accredited voting system test laboratory and have been further analyzed to ensure the system is secure before the Secretary of State approved of their use.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has been conducting onsite physical and cyber threat assessments at each of Oregon's 36 county election offices.
  • All ballots are counted in secure rooms at each of Oregon's 36 county election offices. Security cameras are in place to record 24 hours a day. No voting systems are connected to the internet.
  • The Oregon TIGER (Threat Information Gathering and Election Resources) Team identifies threats and vulnerabilities to Oregon's election system and applies the resources of federal, state, and local governments to mitigate those threats and vulnerabilities. Members of the TIGER Team consist of the Oregon Elections Division, US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Chief Information Officer — Cyber Security Services, Oregon National Guard, Oregon Titan Fusion Center, and FBI.
  • Prior to any ballots being counted, counties test voting systems for logic and accuracy. This testing entails marking test ballots and running them through the vote counting machines to ensure results produced by the voting machines match how the test ballots were marked. This same process is followed after the election to confirm there was no change to the programming.

The US Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have confirmed that no vote tally systems in Oregon, or anywhere else in the US have been hacked.You can have confidence that your ballot will be counted as you mark it and that there will be no tampering with the ballot at any step in the election process. Voting in Oregon has never been more secure or more accurate.

Would you?

(From the Oregon Voters' Pamphlet)

Would you give someone going door to door your ballot to put in a drop box for you?

Not safe. In 2018, 97 people did this and had their vote not count because the ballot was turned in after Election Day. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a talk radio personality who says your political party is changed when you go to DMV?

Not true. The political party you are registered with never changes because of a DMV transaction. If you are not already registered you will be registered as not affiliated. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a story that non-citizens are registered to vote when they get a driver's license?

Not true. Only individuals who show proof of citizenship at DMV are automatically registered to vote. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a social media post, phone call or text message that your voter regis-tration has been cancelled?

Not true. Anytime your voter registration is updated, you are sent a confirmation of the changes. Don't be fooled.

Would you register to vote on a website you saw on social media instead of registering at the official Secretary of State site, oregonvotes.gov/register?

Not safe. In 2018 many people used third party sites thinking they were registering to vote. But the information was never sent to the Elections Division and they could not vote. These sites can also steal your personal info. Don't be fooled.

Would you trust election information like deadlines, drop box locations and results from any website other than the official Secretary of State site, oregonvotes.gov?

Not safe. Only use official information located on the Secretary of State's website or your county elections website. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a social media post that says your ballot can be rejected without you knowing about it?

It can't. If your ballot is rejected you will be notified and may have the chance to fix it. Plus you can view the status of your ballot at oregonvotes.gov/myvote. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a social media post that says because of record high voter turnout, Democrats vote on Tuesday and Republicans vote on Wednesday?

Not true. All ballots are due by 8 pm, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a picture on social media with the same candidate listed twice and another candidate missing?

Not true. People have photoshopped ballot images before. Don't be fooled.

Would you believe a headline that says it is too late to secure the upcoming election?

Not true. Election security in Oregon has never been stronger and is continually being improved. Don't by fooled.

Don't Be Fooled

In Person Voting

To people who are adamant about In Person Voting:

  • voters must travel to poll to vote in person
  • voters might have to wait in line
  • voters might have to take time off work and/or go INTO TOWN to vote.
  • voters have a limited number of polling places, which have been shutdown to disenfranchise certain demographics.
  • The poll workers must attend the polls are (typically) retired, older folks.

During the pandemic there was great concern about exposing the poll workers, who would come in contact with a large number of people.. the elderly being perhaps more at Risk from COVID-19 etc. Now, the poll works have to worry about threats against their lives from YOU KNOW WHO.

Is your 'In Person Voting' done using Voting Machines? And you trust those electronics and software more than you'd trust Vote By Mail?? What assurance do you have that your vote wasn't changed or dropped? Do you have a paper rcpt? So what? Can a recount be done? Why would you trust an electronic recount?

Is your In Person Voting on a paper ballot? Is that Great? How do you know that your paper ballot is being handled properly? Is there any reason those same assurances would not also apply to Vote By Mail?

You say that you can go to Walmart to shop, so you can go to the polls. Well, we could have dropboxes at Walmart for you.

Vote by Mail References

A link appears with each reference, to the source.

Note: Some links may have faded since this was written. I'll run a link checker and fix or eliminate broken links ASAP — JM March 2022.

  • [1] The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) [All-Mail Election page] explains how it works, and enumerates the obvious advantages.
  • [2] Voting in Oregon - Vote By Mail - FAQ [LINK]
  • [2.1] How does vote-by-mail work in Oregon?​ (Multnomah County's answer) [LINK]
  • [2.2] History of Vote By Mail in Oregon - In 1998 voters passed a ballot measure directing all elections to be conducted by mail, commonly called Vote By Mail. But it goes back way before. (1981) . It happened in stages. See timeline here: [Wikipedia]
  • [3] Oregon's Vote by Mail Procedures Manual [PDF]
  • [4] The U.S. Election Assistance Commission - peeps who help across state lines. [EAC]
  • [5] Vote at Home — Impressive Non-Profit! [LINK]
  • [5.1] National Vote at Home Reference Library — Massive number of Links [PDF]
  • [5.2] Voting Options in Every State [Thanks to K2] [PDF]
  • [6] The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) — absentee and early voting [NCSL]
  • [7] Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act [WIKIPEDIA]
  • [8] Will the Coronavirus Make Voting by Mail the New National Reality? [MOTHER JONES]
  • [9] Good simple article 'vote-by-mail-can-save-elections-from-coronavirus'. But this one still doesn't give the simple steps that peeps are worried about: security and processing. [LINK]
  • [10] New York Times — Mail-in voting Explained [NYT]
  • [11] NPR, New Poll — Americans Overwhelmingly Support Voting By Mail Amid Pandemic [NPR]

Voter Registration References

A link appears with each reference, to the source.

Note: Some links may have faded since this was written. I'll run a link checker and fix or eliminate broken links ASAP — JM March 2022.

  • National Association of Secretaries of State, with links to every state's voter registration check system. [NASS]
  • Voter registration in the United States [LINK]
  • Voter Registration Rules in all 50 states [LINK]
  • What do I do when I'm registered to vote in two states? (Quora question) [LINK]
  • Double Voting - One of the basic tenets of democracy is that each person has one vote. In practice, state laws vary regarding the definition of voting more than once and particularly what happens if a voter casts a ballot in more than one state. [LINK]

Call to Action

Call Congress and tell them to support the Resilient Elections Act: (202) 224-3121. See the [BILL]

A Limerick, by @Limericking

Republicans hope to derail
Attempts to do ballots by mail.
It’s awful, they note,
When voters can vote
As this means their candidates fail.