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Oregon Pushes Envelope Of Nation's Voting System

OREGONIANS this week head for their voting places. For some, it'll be on the couch with family members during TV commercials. For others it may be at church after Sunday services or parked outside the post office with minutes to spare.

The state that has led the nation in many public-policy experiments is now electing a US senator in a novel way: by mail. All registered voters, not just those considered absentee, will be putting a stamp on their ballot.

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The vote is to replace Republican Bob Packwood, who resigned last month under an ethical cloud.

For candidates, campaign professionals, and election officials around the country, Oregon's first-of-its-kind vote creates a unique political science laboratory. The primary ballots are being mailed out this week for a Dec. 5 count, and general election ballots will be counted Jan. 30.

David Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Utah says, "It has the potential of being a bridge to a whole new way of thinking about voting, which would be consistent with people on the World Wide Web or voting by telephone."

"Everybody's watching this," says Peg Rosenfield, a former Ohio election official who wrote a report on mail balloting for the Federal Elections Commission. "It's going to be fascinating."

Supporters say the mail vote will save several million dollars in polling expenses, plus lead to increased voter participation. Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling says it opens up the democratic process, though he'll miss taking his kids down to the local school when he votes.

"The mechanics of voting have remained largely unchanged for over a century," Mr. Keisling says. "Why insist that everyone cling to a particular tradition?"

Several states - California and Texas among them - already have liberalized absentee-ballot requirements. In Oregon's 1994 election, some 25 percent of the ballots were mailed in, and many local elections here have been mail-only since 1981.

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But there are two major concerns: The potential for fraud and the possibility of undue influence by family members, employers, or religious leaders as the vote moves from behind the balloting curtain into less private settings. "The truth is, we don't really know as much as we would like to know about this whole process," says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. He worries about "voting parties" where employees, parishioners, or members of a social group are encouraged to bring in their ballots and vote together.

To such concerns Keisling responds: "We've been doing vote-by-mail in Oregon for 14 years, and literally tens of millions of ballots have been cast through the mail with nary a problem of any significance and with dramatic increases in some cases in turnout." Oregon consistently is one of the top states in voter participation.

The other great unknown is what impact mail voting will have on campaigning - especially since voters can return their ballots any time over a period that spans more than two weeks.

Some experts say this could shift the electorate to those who are older, better educated, and more affluent. "There are reasons to believe that Republicans are more likely to benefit," says Professor Magleby. "But there are any number of ways in which Democrats could mobilize support."

"It's different when you don't have one election day but have two or three weeks of election days," says Ms. Rosenfield. "How does that affect the dynamics? How does that affect the costs? Nobody's done it on this scale, so we really don't know."

It seems likely that absent campaign finance reform, money - "the mother's milk of politics," as it's been called - could play a larger role as candidates find it necessary to keep themselves and their message in public view over a longer period.

No matter how it turns out, the state that has pioneered such things as the ballot initiative and petition seems the right place for a vote-by-mail experiment. "We should probably all be glad it's in Oregon, which has basically clean elections," says Rosenfield. "You have a reputation for being competent and honest."

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