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A former Oregon secretary of state has joined the chorus of praise for Del Riley, the former Linn County clerk who played an essential role in developing the state's vote-by-mail system.

In a lovely piece published in Sunday's Oregonian newspaper that's worth your attention, Phil Keisling, Oregon's secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, writes: "At times during the last 25 years, I've sometimes been introduced as the 'father' of vote-by-mail. While I'm certainly proud of the chance I had as Oregon secretary of state to push for this reform, I always wince at the accolade, because it's undeserved. ... But there is a actually a true father of vote-by-mail, and it's Del Riley."

Riley died last month at the age of 93, and Keisling writes that he was able to visit with Riley just before his death: "I had the privilege to visit with him and his family and to thank him — as all of us should — for having the vision and courage to pioneer this innovation in democracy." (The online version of this editorial includes a link to Keisling's piece in The Oregonian.)

Keisling characterized his own work in vote-by-mail as "more the role of a midwife, helping expand it to all elections." And he said that, among secretaries of state, Norma Paulus deserves "far more parental billing in this reform."

But it was Riley, Keisling writes, who really stuck his neck out in pursuit of a vote-by-mail system: "As an elected official — and a registered Democrat in a county that was increasingly trending Republican — any snafus or even a whiff of problems might have made this a career-ending move."

Keisling's piece also includes some details about the creation of Oregon's vote-by-mail system that were news to us: 

For example, Keisling recalls, it used to be the case that Oregon counties used to be required to distribute sample ballots before each election. Riley and other county clerks started to wonder: Why not just skip that step and send actual ballots to voters?

It was a simple question. But, as is so often the case, answering it required a lot of time and a typically twisted route through the state's political corridors.

In 1981, Riley joined Paulus and a group of legislators to observe an all-mail election in San Diego. Riley was fired up by the idea, and he and Paulus persuaded the Legislature to OK a two-year trial.

That first trial was a smash, with a turnout of some 75 percent in an off-year special election. (It's not unusual for those types of elections to struggle to get to 20 or 25 percent turnout.)

Despite that success, the vote-by-mail effort still took more than a decade to finally turn the corner: It wasn't until 1995 when the Legislature passed a bill allowing any election to be held by mail. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber actually vetoed that bill.

Finally, in 1998, an initiative measure paving the way for mail elections was overwhelmingly approved by Oregon voters. 

Since then, Keisling notes, none of the fears raised by vote-by-mail opponents has come to pass; ironically enough, some of those fears (such as voter fraud) have become more of an issue with traditional elections. And, of course, the election turnout in Oregon traditionally ranks among the nation's highest. In fact, as we become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of many of the nation's election systems, other states are taking a long look at Oregon's system. 

This is the 20th anniversary of the year when Oregon voters gave the green light to vote-by-mail elections. Keisling, who now serves as the director of the Center for Public Service in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, writes that Del Riley isn't a household name among Oregon citizens, "but he certainly deserves to be." Keisling's timely and heartfelt essay should help with that. (mm)

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