The ballot box that sits at Erb Memorial Union on the University of Oregon campus makes voting more accessible for students. (Brad Smith/Emerald)

Voters in Oregon may be able to mail their ballots for free beginning in 2020, thanks to a recent senate bill passed by Oregon legislators at the end of an eventful 2019 legislative session. The bill’s supporters say it will provide better access to young voters, disabled voters and Oregonians living in rural areas, but the cost has made some lawmakers pause.

Senate Bill 861 would increase voter turnout for young voters, according to testimony supporting the bill from the League of Women Voters — in Washington, where the state paid postage for one election, voter turnout increased by 8 percent. A statement released by the Oregon Secretary of State said the free return envelopes would encourage first-time voters and young people to vote as they “don’t usually keep stamps in their home.” 

There is a ballot drop box located directly outside the Erb Memorial Union at the University of Oregon where students can drop their ballots in a convenient location, but mailing in a ballot may make it even easier for some students.

“I’d probably vote more if I could just mail in my ballots for free,” said UO junior Jacob Williams. “I don’t really have time to drop them off with school and sports and everything.” 

There are four precincts containing the majority of UO students who are registered voters, according to Lane County Clerk Cheryl Betschart. Those precincts have 14,020 registered voters, about 70 percent of whom participated in the general election on November 6, 2018. An 8 percent increase in participating voters would mean 789 more voters around the UO area.

According to Rebecca Gladstone, president of the Oregon chapter of the League of Women Voters, first-time voters show continued participation in a democracy when they are registered early and vote early. When young voters leave their homes and communities to attend college among other things, they are especially less likely to feel an obligation to participate and the first instance of voting becomes even more important.

“Young people have traditionally been mobile in our American society and we love that,” Gladstone said. “But we do want to be able to support voting and eliminate as many barriers as we can.” 

The bill met some resistance from both sides of the aisle because of the costs the state must bear to provide these return envelopes. The bill’s fiscal impact form estimates that the state would be required to spend anywhere between $1,585,050 and $3,102,059 between 2019-2021, which will come from the general fund. 

About 87 percent of the state general fund is made up of personal income taxes that go toward education, human services, public safety and other services, according to the Secretary of State. The state will not cover the postage costs should ballots be returned to drop boxes and elections offices — only the postage that gets the voter’s ballot from their home to the county’s office.

The cost for counties across the state is estimated at $83,733 because counties must destroy all return envelopes that go unused at the end of each election cycle.

In a statement provided to Chief Clerk Timothy G. Sekerak, House Speaker Tina Kotek D-Portland stated that she would not be supporting the bill. 

“I support protecting voting rights and expanding access to the ballot. I am proud that Oregon sets the national standard for ballot access,” said Kotek. “After careful consideration of SB 861, I decided to vote no because I had concerns about the ongoing cost of providing paid postage on ballots without more substantive evidence that voter participation would significantly increase with this change.” 

The bill received support from both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. One senator was notably missing from the vote — Senator Brian Boquist R-Dallas. Boquist was asked not to attend by the Senate President Peter Courtney pending an investigation into his conduct over the past weeks, according to KGW. Boquist threatened state police after Republican senators fled from the Capitol to stall a vote on an environmental bill, according to the Associated Press. The hold-up on this bill also caused a delay in many of the bills looking to get through at the end of 2019 legislative session like SB 861.

The bill is now on Governor Kate Brown’s desk waiting for her signature. It will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, should Brown sign off. Brown requested the bill, along with the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and The Bus Project.