Oregon, the first state to conduct all elections by mail, would join the ranks of states accepting ballots postmarked by election day under a bill that is headed to Gov. Kate Brown.
House Bill 3291 was approved by the Oregon Senate without amendment on a 16-13 vote Thursday. The key vote was cast by Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who hung back until it was clear his would be the deciding vote.
Beyer said afterward his concern was that in close elections, voters might question the validity of mail ballots counted days after the election date itself. The bill requires ballots to be received by county elections officials no later than seven days after an election.
Brown, in her state of the state remarks earlier this year, endorsed election-day postmarks. She is a former secretary of state.
Seventeen other states — including California, Washington and Nevada — allow ballots to count if postmarked by election day. Four others count ballots if postmarked no later than the day before an election. States that allow election-day postmarks vary widely, from three to 20 days after an election.
The bill would take effect starting with the 2022 elections. Oregon has conducted all elections by mail starting in 2000.
The bill also changes an available election date from the third Tuesday in September to the fourth Tuesday in August.
No firm statewide count of late ballots was available, but the measure's chief sponsor, Democratic Rep. Dan Rayfield of Corvallis, said about 150 Marion County ballots were left uncounted because they reached the elections office after election day.
The vote fell largely along party lines. Democrats supplied the bare majority of 16 to pass it. Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose joined the 11 Senate Republicans and the Senate's lone independent to oppose it. One Democrat was excused.
Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner said the change makes sense.
"I think it is a sad commentary on our civic life when efforts like this that make it potentially easier for people to participate in our democracy somehow become a partisan issue," Wagner, a Democrat from Lake Oswego, said.
"This is a common-sense measure that helps decrease voter confusion, continues to safeguard our elections and continues our proud tradition in Oregon of vote by mail."
Republicans said they did not object to election-day postmarks, but sought other changes, such as a ban on third-party collection of ballots and disqualification of ballots where postmarks are unclear. The bill says a ballot would count even if the postmark is unclear.
"This is about cleaning up the bill," Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod of Lyons said. "If the bill is not cleaned up, it's going to be an invitation to fraud."
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, raised questions about U.S. Postal Service mail processing, much of which for Oregon is done in Portland.
When a voter signs the back of the envelope that contains a mail ballot — the signature will be compared to one on file with the county elections office — there will be a statement attesting that the envelope was mailed on or before election day. If a voter does otherwise, it is considered perjury, a Class C felony punishable by a maximum fine of $125,000 and five years in prison.
The measure also allows elections officials to start ballot tallies, not just preparation of ballots for tallies election night. Current law bars any release of such information until after 8 p.m. election night.
Wagner said election-day postmarks would reduce what is known as ballot harvesting, "instead of the scramble we have right now 72 hours before the election."
As for early counts, he said, elections officials in Oregon's 36 counties — some are elected county clerks, others appointed, such as those in Multnomah and Washington counties — take their duties seriously.
"It is not politicians who are processing ballots or counting them early," Wagner said.