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Oregon already votes by mail. Here’s what it can teach us in 2020.

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Steve Druckenmiller loved voting, and he loved elections, but he really thought voting by mail was a crazy idea. So when the subject came up during his interview for the job of elections supervisor in Linn County, Oregon, in 1984, he thought, Oh crap.

“Sir, I think it stinks,” Druckenmiller recalls telling Del Riley, then the Linn County Clerk, who interviewed him for the position. Mr. Riley looked at him, big eyes behind big glasses, and thanked Druckenmiller for coming in. Druckenmiller figured, Well, I almost had it.

But a few days later, Riley offered Druckenmiller the job of supervising elections in Linn, a square in western Oregon, south of Portland. Whether Druckenmiller liked voting by mail or not, he was about to learn from the master.

In Oregonian politics, Riley is sometimes known as the “father” of vote by mail. Riley started asking why not let constituents send in their ballots. He became an advocate for the system after pioneering, along with neighboring Benton County, the state’s first vote by mail for local elections in 1981. Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has changed and expanded since, but that democratic experiment was a forerunner to how Oregon does elections now.

Today, Oregon votes only by mail. It has done so for nearly two decades, after voters approved a ballot measure in 1998. Across Oregon, registered voters are sent a ballot, and they can either mail it back or drop it off.

That has made Oregon’s system a vote-by-mail model for the country. Other western states, including Colorado, Washington, and Utah, have since adopted similar systems in the years since. Advocates say it’s as safe as in-person voting, cost-effective, and boosts turnout. They argue it could — or should — be the future of how America votes.

Temporary election staff open and inspect mail-in ballots before scanning them at the King County County Department of Elections in Renton, Washington, on November 2, 2016.
AFP via Getty Images

Druckenmiller, after working for Riley for a bit, asked his boss why he’d hired a vote-by-mail skeptic like him to run elections. “I thought after you did some vote-by-mails, you’d see it,” Riley told him. “Besides, you know what? You’re the only one who applied for the job.”

Riley was right. Druckenmiller did see it. When Riley retired, Druckenmiller was elected in 1986 to take his place as Linn County Clerk. He’s been running elections there ever since. By his count, he has probably run more vote-by-mail elections than anyone, anywhere — and he’ll be doing so again in 2020.

The rest of America is suddenly more aware than ever of how it votes this year. Covid-19 took hold in the United States during the primaries, forcing states to postpone elections and rethink their electoral systems. States and many constituents saw voting by mail or absentee ballot — safe at home, away from crowds — as the best way to protect people and guarantee access to the polls in the middle of a pandemic.

The number of Americans voting by mail has steadily increased in the past decade. In 2018, about 25 percent of all voters cast their ballots by mail. That number could about double in 2020. Beyond the states that already do it, this year, states like California, where counties already had many voters casting ballots by mail, are now also sending ballots to registered voters. Others, like Vermont and New Jersey, are mailing out ballots for the first time.

This rapid expansion of voting by mail is happening amid one of the most consequential and fraught elections in recent memory. How the election unfolds may determine whether counties and states begin to more readily embrace all-mail elections in the future, or whether the politics surrounding it becomes even more polarizing.

Oregon’s path to vote-by-mail offers some lessons for the rest of the country. Druckenmiller was a convert three decades ago. He believes you’ll be one, too. Just maybe not in 2020.

Vote by mail started in local Oregon elections

A delegation traveled to San Diego, California, in the spring of 1981. Riley, of Linn County, and others, including then-Republican Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus and some of her deputies, went to observe an all-mail election scheduled to take place there.

Paulus and Riley liked what they saw.

Riley, who passed away in 2018, and Paulus, who died in 2019, both saw voting by mail as a way to strengthen the democratic process. “The fundamental thing about Norma is she wanted to get everybody involved,” Pat McCord Amacher, a freelance writer who cowrote Paulus’s autobiography, told me. “And the thought that someone was not using the right to vote would have just been just unconscionable to her.”

First, though, they had to see if it would work in Oregon. In November 1981, Riley conducted the state’s first all-mail election, in Linn County; on the ballot were two school district levies and one city charter amendment. (Neighboring Benton County also got in on some of the action, as one of the school districts overlapped.) According to a 2018 op-ed in the Oregonian by Phil Keisling, Oregon’s Democratic secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, 25,000 registered voters received ballots, and turnout was as high as 75 percent for this little dinky election.

From there, a few additional counties in Oregon tested out vote by mail in local elections in the early 1980s, mostly for measures like school and library budgets, and later for local candidates as well.

Al Davidson, who was served as the county clerk for 20 years in Marion County, Oregon, which includes the state capital of Salem, said some resistance to vote by mail was driven by the fear that district and school measures would get defeated at higher rates, since people who wouldn’t normally be motivated or pay attention would now just vote everything down.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

Opposition to the idea “kind of died out,” he said. “It didn’t take very long before most Oregon governmental units realized vote by mail was the wave of the future, and rather than try to fight it, they needed to embrace it.”

Davidson admitted he wasn’t a big fan of vote by mail at first, and after he was elected in 1984, he told his staff that Marion County wouldn’t do it. But his staff convinced him, and after they conducted a few vote-by-mail elections and worked closely with other county clerks, Davidson decided he liked the results and changed his mind. “When I did, I was super champion of it,” he said. He became an advocate for expanding vote by mail across the state.

Davidson flipped in the same way Druckenmiller did. Druckenmiller said as an election administrator, it was hard not to be persuaded, once you compared polling place elections to vote by mail. Vote by mail was orderly, Druckenmiller said. It was accurate — you minimized the chances of error. You saw better turnout for special and local elections, and it cost less. You could better help voters, avoiding the crazy mess of Election Day and all the mistakes that happen at polling places.

“If you’re kind of a control freak, and you want something to be 100 percent, you would latch on to vote by mail,” Druckenmiller told me.

In 1987, the Oregon state legislature did latch on, and made vote by mail permanent for local elections, though not for primary and general elections. County clerks in the state kept pushing to make it permanent for all elections.

But that push turned a nonpartisan fight into something more political.

The political parties couldn’t agree on vote by mail. So Oregonians eventually decided for themselves.

Oregon experimented with vote by mail in a couple of statewide special elections in the 1990s, but the legislature largely frustrated any attempts to make it more permanent. In 1995, a bipartisan group in the Republican-led legislature passed a bill that would expand vote by mail for primary and general elections. The Democratic governor at the time, John Kitzhaber, vetoed it.

That’s partly because Republicans, not Democrats, were the early champions of vote by mail in Oregon.

“What that fear, or dislike, was coming from was the experience with absentee ballots,” Bill Bradbury, who served as Oregon’s Democratic secretary of state from 1999 to 2009, said of vote by mail during that time. Fresh in Democrats’ memories were recent elections in which absentee ballots had broken toward Republicans; Democrats reflexively thought that vote by mail would favor their opponents.

But as Keisling, the state’s former secretary of state, wrote in Washington Monthly in 2016, those particular complaints were more often made in private; publicly, Democrats instead “fretted about potential voter fraud and coercion. (Sound familiar?)”

Keisling, a Democrat, was secretary of state when the Democratic governor vetoed the bill in 1995. As a legislator, Keisling had voted against an expansion of vote by mail to party primaries in 1989. But as secretary of state — in charge of overseeing all elections in Oregon — he, too, experienced a conversion. The cost savings and the increase in turnout for local and special elections were too hard to resist.

“I finally had an epiphany,” Keisling told Oregon Public Broadcasting in June 2020, “and realized we were confusing a particular ritual of democracy with what its essence was, which was participation.” Vote by mail, he said, “clearly increased participation.”

In 1995, Keisling’s effort to expand vote by mail got an unexpected boost after a powerful senator from Oregon was forced to resign in 1995 following a sexual harassment scandal. That vacated a Senate seat, which needed to be filled through a special election. Keisling decided to conduct the primary and Senate election by mail.

That election, held in January 1996, featured then-Democratic House member Ron Wyden and then-Republican state Sen. Gordon Smith both vying for the open Senate seat. So much attention was on the race, Wyden recalled, that every time he walked outside about 40 boom mics, along with reporters, were eager to document the election.

Wyden won, edging out Smith to become the first senator elected in an all-mail election.

Turnout in that January election was about 66 percent, which broke previous special election turnout records, according to Keisling. Wyden’s victory also completely flipped the partisan divide on vote by mail. “Then Democrats say they love vote by mail. Republicans say, Oh bad, bad, bad. And Oregonians listened to all this and said, This is ridiculous. We like this, it makes sense,” Wyden told me.

When the Oregon legislature made another attempt to expand and make permanent vote by mail in 1997, it was the Republicans who killed it. “It was simply one of those cases of whose ox was getting gored,” as Druckenmiller put it.

But as Wyden noted, Oregon voters had by now gotten hooked on vote by mail. Local elections were being done this way. Oregon had also by this point embraced no-fault absentee voting for most other elections — meaning voters didn’t need an excuse to get an absentee ballot sent to them — and people took advantage of it. Election administrators were running in-person elections for a dwindling number of voters.

Over the years, vote by mail had become part of the democratic process. But politics still prevented vote by mail from being official. “That’s why we had to take it into our hands, because the legislature obviously wasn’t going to get there,” Davidson, still the Marion County Clerk at that time, told me.

Davidson and other county clerks and advocacy groups did take matters into their own hands: gathering signatures to get a vote-by-mail initiative on the ballot, so voters could vote on how they wanted to vote.

In 1998, Oregonians backed Ballot Measure 60 by 757,204 to 334,021 — nearly 70 percent — to allow vote by mail in all elections. “We knew once we got it on the ballot, the people would override the legislature,” Davidson said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

How Oregon’s vote-by-mail system works

Bill Bradbury became Oregon’s secretary of state just before the first entirely vote-by-mail election in 2000. It went off without a hitch, which he credits to the 20 years of off-and-on experience with vote by mail Oregon already had.

Turnout in that general 2000 election was nearly 80 percent.

But even though the vote-by-mail ballot measure had passed overwhelmingly in 1998, the naysayers never shut up completely. “Every time you talk about changing voting systems, and every time you talk about voting by mail, immediately, people go to FRAUUUDDDD,” Bradbury told me, doing his best impersonation of the critics.

Yet Bradbury said he remembers no more than three prosecuted fraud cases in the primary and the general, which he said compared favorably to in-person elections. “I can say definitely there is not — N-O-T, not — an increase in fraud with vote by mail,” Bradbury said.

Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has safeguards in place. Registered voters have their signatures on file — either by mailing a voter registration card to election officials, or by opting-in to registration directly when they get or renew a license. When it comes time to vote, election officials mail ballots to registered voters, which they typically receive about two to three weeks before an election.

The ballot contains a few things: the ballot itself; a “secrecy envelope” that the ballot goes inside once it’s marked; and a return envelope, which now even has the postage prepaid so voters don’t have to cover the cost of return postage.

Once you make your choices on your ballot, you slip it into the secrecy envelope, seal it up, slip that into the return envelope and seal it. Then you read and sign the statement printed on the back of the envelope, which basically says that you verify that you are you. Once that’s done, you either send it back by mail or put it into a secure drop box — either method requires that election officials receive the ballot before 8 pm on Election Day. Oregonians can also track their ballot to make sure it’s been received and counted.

Only about one-third of Oregonians actually send their ballots back through the postal service, instead placing them in secure drop boxes at places like libraries or movie theaters or even McDonald’s.

Election workers in Portland, Oregon, verify the signature on ballots on November 7, 2000.
Jack Smith/AP
A voter delivers her ballot at a voter express official ballot drop site on October 29, 2004, in Portland, Oregon.
Rick Bowmer/AP

According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, from 2012 to 2018, slightly more than 36 percent of ballots were returned by mail; 63 percent of voters put their ballots in drop boxes or returned them directly to county officials. In the May 2020 primary, about half of voters sent in their ballots by mail, with both the Covid-19 pandemic and Oregon’s decision to start paying the cost of postage likely accounting for that uptick.

Each ballot has a unique bar code specific to each voter, so once the ballot is received, election officials can verify the signature on that ballot envelope to make sure it matches the one on that voter’s registration. There are often multiple reviews to guarantee it’s a match — Druckenmiller said if someone questions the signature, two other people will review it; if they’re not sure, he makes the final call. If the signature doesn’t match, voters are notified and given the opportunity to remedy that, in what’s known as a “cure” process.

But once a signature is verified, the ballot is separated from the return envelope so the ballot can be tabulated. Along the way, there are layers of auditing to make sure the number of ballots received matches the tabulated numbers for the vote count. Many see mail-in ballots as more secure because there’s a paper trail, and so cant be hacked.

Oregon election officials get updates from public records, like change-of-address notifications and death records, to check against the voter registration databases. “We use the Postal Service. When most of us move, we change our address, right?” Paul Gronke, a professor of political science and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, told me. “And so actually, vote by mail works really well and has very little deadwood. The rolls are very clean.”

John Lindback, the elections division director from 2001 to 2009 at the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, told me clerks even used to check divorce records to see if any spouse had ever tried to force an ex-partner to vote against their will. They never found anything.

According to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, in 2016, officials referred 54 cases of possible voter fraud to law enforcement. Of those, 22 people representing just 0.0001 percent of all ballots cast that year were found guilty of having voted in two states.

Election officials in Oregon I spoke to told me that vote by mail is also much more efficient to oversee than polling-place elections, where sites are spread out across the county.

“Clerks by nature are control freaks,” Lindback told me. With vote by mail, instead of having to staff dozens and dozens of election sites, people are staffed in the county elections offices instead. “They’re verifying signatures and processing ballots, and you have big tables of teams working on that,” Lindback said. “And you can look out there and go, Okay, everything looks like it’s going well. And you have way more confidence that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

And if Oregonians are still skeptical, they can see for themselves. People are free to observe and monitor the process. That’s lately been more of a challenge because of coronavirus health restrictions — election officials already need more space to accommodate workers, and have to be cautious about protecting the people actually counting the votes — but Druckenmiller says over the years he’s had plenty of people come to observe and never had anyone leave with a complaint.

“When we were first implementing vote by mail, there was a higher level of concern about fraud,” Bradbury said. “And I can remember really going through that with people and trying to bring comfort to people. And I think people now are completely comfortable with the system in this state. We don’t hear boops about people complaining about fraud.”

Why the system has stuck

An April 2020 YouGov poll found that 77 percent of adults in Oregon backed vote by mail, compared to 11 percent who opposed it. Indeed, voters in states that have vote by mail — whether in bluer states like Washington or redder states like Utah — all tend to overwhelmingly like it.

It’s convenient. Voters don’t have to take off from work, or spend time waiting in line at a polling place. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who was elected by mail and who’s backed legislation to expand vote by mail nationally, pointed out that it eliminates voter intimidation or suppression at the polls. Others noted how mail-in voting can adapt to crises, like the recent wildfires on the West Coast or unrest in cities including Portland, which could be a challenge if election officials had to set up polling stations.

Instead, voters get their ballots delivered right to them, and they can sit at their desks or their kitchen tables to fill them out. “It becomes sort of your civic evening,” Bradbury said. Some say it makes them more informed voters, because they have the time and opportunity to research candidates and ballot measures — which Oregon has its fair share of each year.

Lindback heard a lot from parents who said they liked vote by mail because it gave them a chance to show their kids what voting was all about. “It provides an opportunity, as you’re marking your ballot to have your kids there,” he said. “And you can talk about it, talk about the candidates.”

Advocates of vote by mail say it increases turnout, though some experts I spoke to said the gains are modest in high-profile national elections. Oregon did see an uptick in the 1990s and 2000s, but experts I spoke to attribute some of that to the novelty of it all, and the media coverage of the vote-by-mail elections.

2016 election ballots are prepared for counting in Portland, Oregon.
Don Ryan/AP
Pallets with ballots for mailing in Portland, Oregon, in 2006.
Don Ryan/AP

Gronke, who’s studied Oregon’s system, said the benefits are much more obvious in state and local elections, which tend to be lower turnout and don’t attract as much attention. “The vote-by-mail system certainly encourages people to participate regularly,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that, because you get all that information.”

There’s also no evidence that vote by mail advantages one party over the other. Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who’s studied this question, said that’s because America really has a two-tier electoral process: first, you register. Then, you vote. “Voting by mail didn’t produce extra registrations,” he said. “It gave people who were already registered a chance to vote.” Vote by mail can catch people who might have otherwise not made it to the polls, but it doesn’t transform the voter makeup of a county or state.

And then there’s why election officials love it. For one, it’s cheaper. Keisling wrote in 2016 that since 2000, exclusively voting by mail has saved Oregonians $3 million each election cycle. It costs money to set up dozens of polling stations in a county, staff them, and manage the equipment. Most states have some version of absentee or mail-in voting, and the more people that take advantage of that (as is expected to happen in 2020), election officials have to basically run two parallel elections. And again, for those control-freak county clerks, it’s much easier to administer.

Of course, no voting system is perfect, even if Oregonians will try to convince you otherwise.

Charlotte Hill, a policy researcher in elections and voting at the University of California Berkeley, told me that the social nature of voting does matter in elections; there’s a reason why it feels so hard to part with polling places. That could, in the longer term, diminish enthusiasm. “If we don’t give people an opportunity to, to feel like they’re part of that broader social unit when voting, I think there’s a chance that some people aren’t going to be as interested in participating,” she said.

Mail-in ballots also get rejected at higher rates than in-person ballots do. Oregon has tried to remedy that over time by improving ballot design, and implementing those robust “cure” processes so voters can correct mistakes. Still, 0.86 percent of Oregon’s ballots got rejected in 2016, though that was slightly below the national average.

Charles Stewart III, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me he has “not drunk the Oregon Kool Aid” on mail-in voting, but does think the state offers a case study for where and when vote by mail can work. It has tended to catch on in western states, where some people live great distances from county or city centers, so vote by mail makes even more sense. Oregon, he noted, has a strong tradition of political participation. The state also had decades of practice, even before the 1998 ballot measure, where Oregonians decided they liked mail elections and chose it for themselves.

Due to the pandemic, though, states and counties don’t have 20 years to ease into vote by mail. They’ve had just a few months.

The mail-in voting test for 2020

The outbreak of a pandemic in the middle of a presidential election year left states scrambling to figure out how to conduct voting safely and accessibly. Mail-in voting looked like the answer. But this rapid readjustment in how America planned to vote is creating even more uncertainty in an already tense election year.

Vote by mail is business as usual in places like Oregon and Colorado. States like California, which had already been moving toward mail elections, also had an advantage. But most other states had to figure out how to accommodate a greater share of the electorate staying home on a very short timeline.

In total, nine states (plus Washington, DC) are mailing ballots to all registered voters, including some like New Jersey that are trying this out for the very first time, along with overseeing polling place elections. Other states fall somewhere in between: Some are sending ballot applications, but not ballots themselves, to all registered voters. Others still require voters to request ballots, but have waived the requirement of providing a legitimate reason for voting absentee, or have allowed the pandemic to count as an accepted reason.

The result is likely an unprecedented number of Americans voting by mail.

But this great American vote-by-mail experiment in a contested presidential election has some of Oregon’s biggest advocates a little conflicted. On the one hand, they want everyone to join the vote-by-mail revolution. On the other hand, a revolution in an unpredictable presidential election year with tremendous implications for the future of American democracy is not exactly what they had in mind.

“We took 20 years to get it right,” Davidson, the retired clerk in Marion County, told me. “And people who have never done it, election administrators who have never done anything other than polling-place elections, it just scares me to death.”

Davidson said there are just too many variables, specifically in states that are now sending out ballots. There’s the equipment to process the ballots, and the training and administrative procedures, like cure processes to remedy discrepancies. Lots of places have rapidly changed their rules, and some states are still facing lawsuits, meaning procedures are changing weeks before the election.

Vote-by-mail states are much more used to communicating with voters by mail, and so, as experts have pointed out, tend to have cleaner voter rolls. But states adjusting rapidly may struggle, and some experts said they are looking to see if that means ballots go out to people who have died or moved — and, well, cue the voter fraud chorus.

“It’s best if you sneak up on this slowly,” Stewart, of MIT, said. “That’s one of the things I would have hoped that many of the states would have learned is that it does take a lot of work to make an effective transition to vote by mail.”

Ballots are processed in Portland, Oregon, in 2014.
Don Ryan/AP
A large road sign directs motorists to drive-by ballot drop boxes in Portland, Oregon, in 2010.
Don Ryan/AP

Voting-rights advocates are also nervous that the rapid shift to — or at least the increased emphasis on — vote by mail may confuse voters and deter them from voting. Hill, of UC Berkeley, said that when voting laws change, “People who turn out at lower rates or who might be more skeptical of changes in voting laws — people who have been more subject to voter suppression in the past — they are not usually the first adopters of the new voting system.”

States that are expanding their mail-in-voting options will also have in-person drop offs or polling places. This presents an additional challenge, with election administrators potentially having to run a mail voting process while still managing in-person polls, which requires even more resources and oversight to run because of sanitation and social distancing concerns.

Lindback, Oregon’s former elections director, told me that when he used to talk about Oregon’s system he’d tell officials, don’t do wholesale change, start gradually, let voters get used to it, and build from there. But the pandemic didn’t leave many good options.

And experts pointed out that because some states like Oregon do have well-established vote by mail, states have expertise to call on and techniques they can borrow. Laura Fosmire, a communications specialist with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, said in an email that the state’s director of elections has spoken with 30 other states since March about vote by mail.

Additional resources might have also helped smooth the transition, as states are already cash-strapped because of the economic crisis, and the election price tag is going up because of new procedures — whether preparations for mail-in voting or maintaining polling places during the pandemic. Democrats included $3.6 billion in funding for states to administer elections in their $3 trillion stimulus package, but that bill is indefinitely stalled in the Republican-led Senate.

In March, Sen. Wyden, who’s been introducing legislation since 2002 to expand vote by mail nationwide, and fellow Oregonian Sen. Merkley introduced legislation to try to help states expand vote by mail and no-excuse absentee voting, but it went nowhere. “Our good faith is to make vote by mail work,” Wyden told me. “The evidence has been overwhelming that it has been constructive.”

But a lot of that good faith has been eroded by partisanship, which has pitted Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides of the vote-by-mail issue. That partisan fight may end up being the biggest threat of all to the process, and to American democracy itself.

The biggest threat to mail-in voting is still misinformation

The ultimate test for mail-in voting this election won’t be the ballots, or the procedures, or the rejection rates. It will be the rhetoric, and the misinformation, around it.

A lot of this is coming from the president and members of his administration who’ve insisted that the rapid shift to mail-in voting is a recipe for fraud. Trump’s Twitter feed is a morass of conspiracies about missing ballots and Democrats stealing the election.

Vote-by-mail advocates worry this could have a disastrous effect on the popularity and wider adoption of mail-in voting. None expressed fears that 2020 would suddenly be fraught with fraud. Instead, they are concerned that if there are administrative problems or hiccups that come from this shift to vote by mail, the current climate will make the process seem sinister when it’s not.

If election administrators make mistakes, Druckenmiller told me, “it is going to seriously not only damage the presidential election, but is going to seriously damage vote by mail, which is a wonderful revolution in helping people vote.”

But Druckenmiller said neither side is really right in this situation — both parties are, again, mostly worried about whose ox is being gored. Democrats, he said, are acting like voting by mail is a simple way of doing elections, when it’s not. Trump and the Republicans are also wrong when they say it’s a tool of fraud, because it’s not.

“I’m shattered by some of this stuff, I really am,” he said. “They’re setting up elections officials for failure. We’re going to be called dishonest. I don’t know exactly what to do with it, except you try to stand in the middle and point out that both sides are completely missing the marker.”

A record number of people are expected to vote by mail, no matter what. The Republican-led attacks against it are already creating the conditions for voters to distrust the election results, no matter what they are. “This is a huge challenge of our time,” Hill said. “What do we do when one of the two major political parties is intentionally trying to reduce confidence in a widespread voting method? And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.”

Oregon election officials past and present told me they’re used to hearing concerns about fraud and other problems with voting by mail. Heck, some of them were those people. In building vote by mail, they had the space to address all the concerns seriously. Their ability to do that helped strengthen trust in Oregon’s system. But in this political climate, the president or party leaders are going to drown out election officials.

A voter asks questions at the Marion County elections office in Salem, Oregon, on August 19, 2020.
Andrew Selsky/AP

Adam Bonica, an associate politics professor at Stanford University, told me it’s a little like a surgeon who has developed a safe and effective procedure, and right when they’re about to perform it, someone rushes the room and tackles them. “2020 is not about whether vote by mail works as a system,” he said. “It’s about whether vote by mail can work when there’s basically an anti-democratic regime pushing against that.”

It sounds bleak, but it doesn’t have to be. Vote-by-mail advocates also note that this election could actually help more voters understand, Hey, there might be a better way. Voting experts say the best electoral systems are the ones that give voters lots of options — ways to vote early, in as many ways as possible.

That really is the lesson of vote by mail. Bruce Riley, the retired sheriff in Linn County, Oregon, and the son of Del Riley, the county clerk who took a chance on vote by mail almost four decades ago, told me that his dad, a World War II veteran, wanted to try it because he believed so much in public service. Part of that service was getting people involved in the democratic process. “I truly believe it was about trying to get more people involved in the democracy that we all take for granted in America,” he told me.

This has always been America’s contradiction: a democracy that struggles to be truly democratic. The bitter politics of this presidential election make it unlikely to happen in this year, and maybe not anytime soon.

But proponents of vote by mail see it as a way to get a little bit closer to that ideal. “Do we want government by and for the people or by and for the few and powerful?” Sen. Merkley told me. “And if you want government by and for the people, the vision of our Constitution, then vote by mail is a high integrity system that stops so many forms of voter suppression and intimidation and people are going to really like it.”

Druckenmiller understands people still think vote by mail is crazy or a terrible idea. Maybe he even relishes the critics, since he was once among them. But now, he says, if you don’t believe him, come down to Linn County, Oregon. Come see the revolution for yourself.


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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

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Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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