Sen. Ron Wyden
Sen. Ron Wyden Zach Gibson / Getty images

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden was the first United States senator to be elected in an entirely vote by mail election in 1996. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens Americans’ ability to vote safely, he’s fighting to make vote by mail the norm across the US for the 2020 presidential election.

Wyden is a lead sponsor of a bill that would require all states to allow voters to use mail-in ballots during the coronavirus crisis. Currently, 34 states and Washington, D.C. either have entirely vote by mail elections, or allow anyone to vote by mail if they request an absentee ballot. The other 16 states place restrictions on who can vote by mail.

The bill, also sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons, would disperse $2 billion to states to help fund things like pre-paid ballot envelopes and high-speed scanners that can process absentee ballots quickly. The last COVID-19 economic relief act passed by Congress included $400 million for voting by mail, but Wyden says that isn’t nearly enough to cover the transitional costs for states that, unlike Oregon, aren’t already accustomed to an entirely vote by mail system.

While Wyden calls vote by mail a “common sense” solution to the election risks posed by COVID-19, the issue has a long history of being politicized that continues to this day. The Mercury spoke with Wyden on Monday about his efforts, and how he hopes to break through the political divide and make vote by mail the national standard.

MERCURY: Oregon began conducting local elections as vote by mail in the 1980s, and for national elections in the 1990s. Four other states have joined since then. Why is now the time for the rest of the country to follow suit?

WYDEN: I introduced the first vote by mail bill in 2002, and I was also the country’s first senator to be elected all by mail in 1996. Back then, it was an academic sort of debate. A lot of dry political science articles were written about who would do better under vote by mail, and it was always, ‘Well, older voters live in rural areas, they’re conservative, they like voting by mail.’ Or, ‘In urban areas, you have younger people who are juggling a lot of jobs, communities of color—they’ll like it.’

I always felt, ‘Everybody’s going to like it.’ It’s just common sense. People like the convenience, they’re juggling a lot of things these days, it’s cost-effective, and we’ve really been very tough in terms of protecting the integrity of the vote.

I just felt that we were moving toward the point in this country where the worst-case analysis [with COVID-19] would be either vote by mail or nothing.

Anybody who saw that spectacle in Wisconsin a week ago… You have poll workers—a majority of them were over the age of 60, and they’re at risk—meeting voters, many of whom are older, so they’re at risk. That is not a prescription for a good outcome during the pandemic. So we’re pulling out all the stops to get the money, and the $2 billion is what’s estimated to fund the transition properly.

Vote by mail is now thought by some to be better for Democrats, because it increases voter turnout. Are you worried that your effort might fail because of partisan opposition?

The irony is that originally in Oregon, Republicans were for vote by mail, and [most of] the Democrats except for myself [and then-Secretary of State Phil Keisling] were against it. Then I became Oregon’s first new senator in 34 years [after a vote by mail election], and then the roles were reversed. Democrats loved it, the Republicans hated it.

Why did Oregon Republicans initially favor vote by mail, and why did Democrats oppose it?

In the 80s, Democrats who opposed vote by mail said, ‘We like the tradition of going to the ballot box.’ There was a feeling that not only was there a sense of community, but a sense that that would help them, by getting turnout, involving people.

Republicans, I think, thought they would just be better at it. They said, ‘Well, we’re out in the areas of high-income people, we’ll just be better at it.’

And then when Democrats showed in the Senate special election that we could win—it was the only election in the country [that day], and we had two-thirds turnout, huge turnout in the dead of winter—then Republicans said that they didn’t love vote by mail. Democrats said they did. And Oregonians said, ‘Forget all this silliness, we’re just going to vote it in.’ And they did [in 1998].

Donald Trump said recently that vote by mail increases the risk of widespread voter fraud, which isn’t true. Are you worried his message will confuse voters who aren’t used to voting by mail?

National Republicans like Trump and [Sen.] Mitch McConnell are increasingly out of step with local Republicans. You’ve got people like Larry Hogan, a Republican governor of Maryland, and Kim Wyman, the Republican Secretary of State in Washington [supporting it].

So I think there’s getting to be a big disconnect between local Republicans who are beginning to realize that not only is this not favoring Democrats, but it’s just critically important during the pandemic… [and] Trump and McConnell. Trump is looking increasingly hypocritical because he keeps saying how horrible vote by mail is, and then he’s voting by mail in the 2020 presidential election. … Also he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that many military people vote by mail.

Your bill is focused on the upcoming presidential election, which will be impacted by COVID-19. But are you hoping that once states use vote by mail, they’ll keep using it even after the pandemic ends?

Absolutely. I think that is the vote by mail experience. Once you have it and see how it works, you see it’s safe, it’s convenient, it’s affordable. Once you sample vote by mail, there’s no return back.