VOTE 2020: Al Davidson helped pioneer mail-in voting. But other states’ plans to vote by mail this election worry him

Al Davidson, former Marion County clerk, helped pioneer Oregon’s vote-by-mail system. With more states using vote-by-mail in the 2020 elections, Davidson said it’s been “like being rediscovered.” (Salem Reporter/Jake Thomas)

Al Davidson hasn’t overseen a local election in Oregon since he retired as Marion County clerk in 2004. But with an unprecedented number of voters across the country expected to cast their ballots by mail, Davidson said he feels like he’s been “rediscovered.”

During his 20 years serving as the county’s chief elections officer, Davidson helped implement Oregon’s vote-by-mail system as the state became first in the country to adopt the practice. Every election in the state since 2000 has been by mail.

Because of the Covid pandemic, more states seeking lessons are looking to Oregon and the four other states that also vote entirely by mail. This year, 27 states have expanded vote-by-mail, The New York Times reported last month. That includes four additional states and the District of Columbia that will conduct their elections entirely by mail for the first time.

While vote-by-mail is now popular in Oregon, Davidson said it took years to implement and to convince the public to embrace a practice that faced initial skepticism. Davidson said he’s concerned about other states sudden turn to mail-in voting.

“As much as I like vote-by-mail and as much as I’d like to see everybody do it, we took two decades to get it right,” he said.

Mail-in voting came slowly to Oregon. In 1981, the Legislature approved its use for local elections and was soon used by a majority of counties. By the early 1990s, it was being used statewide for special elections.

In 1995, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed a bill passed with a Republican majority that would expand mail-in voting to primary and general elections. Three years later, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that expanded mail-in voting to the primary and general elections.

Elected county clerk in 1984, Davidson said he wasn’t initially on board and told his staff that Marion County wouldn’t be mailing ballots.

Davidson, who previously worked for the state Department of Education, said that educators were very leery of mail-in voting based on a belief that voters who opposed school funding measures normally sat out local elections. If these voters were delivered a ballot, they’d start voting down school funding, the reasoning went.

He said he came around once he saw the increases in turnout and how mail-in voting was easier to manage than multiple polling sites spread throughout the county.

“And the people liked it,” he said.

Davidson said that at the time, some naysayers argued that mail-in voting invited fraud but most concerns were over logistics and from legislators worried about how it would affect their electoral prospects.

With more states turning to mail-in voting for the 2020 election, President Donald Trump has claimed on Twitter and elsewhere that it would lead to fraud and “mayhem.” Fact-checkers have called Trump’s claims baseless and Twitter has attached notices to his tweets questioning their veracity.

Davidson said he’s more concerned about local elections offices that don’t have enough experience, training or equipment with mail-in ballots. He said that mail-in voting relies on signature verification with trained staff and special equipment. Election offices also need machines to unopen and sort the deluge of mail-in ballots on election day, he said.

Some voters might be unsure what to do with a ballot that unexpectedly comes in the mail, said Davidson

“You try to do as much publicity as you can,” he said. “But there are some people that it’s gonna hit him as a surprise.”

Kathleen Hale, a professor of political science at Auburn University in Alabama and director of its graduate program in election administration, said that Oregon’s system has become more familiar to states that have allowed absentee ballots to be cast by mail.

“It’s not mysterious,” she said. “It’s actually doable.”

But Hale, who also sits on the board of the National Association of Election Officials, said already underfunded local elections offices might need policy changes, new equipment, as well as additional staff and time to process more mail-in ballots.

Stephanie Singer, research assistant professor at Portland State University, said that local election offices will have to quickly scale up their ability to process hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots.

While experts say that there is no evidence of widespread manipulation of mail-in ballots, Singer said it’s imperfect and fraud does happen. She pointed to an incident where an election worker in Clackamas County pleaded guilty to tampering with ballots in 2012.

She said that for it to work voters have to understand mail-in voting and for candidates to accept the outcome in elections.

Davidson said that as Oregon was implementing mail-in voting he and other election officials had years to meet with local Rotary Clubs, the League of Women Voters and other civic groups to get public buy-in.

“Here in Oregon, our public is with us, they’ve been with us for so long that we don’t have to do a whole lot to explain it to them,” he said.

But the time it took to win over the public in Oregon isn’t available in other parts of the country, he said.

Despite the difficulties elections offices elsewhere face and the inevitable mistakes that’ll be made in implementing mail-in voting, he’s confident that the 2020 election will be conducted smoothly.

Davidson, who has worked as a consultant and in elections in Colorado, said that local election officials across the country are among the most professional and apolitical public servants who are dedicated to getting it right.

“They believe that work that they do is probably the most important work in America,” he said.

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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.