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The system has been working

Throughout our history, Oregon had one of the highest records of voter turnout in the country, and that level of civic involvement was a source of pride.

But in the 1970s, there was a change, and it was felt across the country. Young people were disenchanted because of the Vietnam War, and citizens of all ages were discouraged by Watergate, which led to a drop in voter participation.

At the same time, the law allowed special districts to call an election on almost any day of the year, and this made voters wary; partisans of an issue would turn out in large numbers, while many others were often not aware of the election until they read about it in the newspaper after the fact.

Also, our society was becoming peripatetic, with more and more people living in one place and working in another. The neighborhood polling places were no longer convenient for people who left for work early and came home late.

As Oregon secretary of state, I asked Democrats and Republicans to work together to turn the situation around and increase voter turnout. The Oregon Legislature approved registration by mail and passed a bill limiting election dates to a few each year.

A statewide public awareness campaign was created to remind citizens that 'every vote counts.' And the absentee voter law was opened to all voters who applied. A system that was once for use only by Oregonians who were infirm or in the military, absentee voting became a convenience for any voter who chose to use it.

The expansion of absentee voting in Oregon reflected the changing needs of Oregonians, and response was great. Our growing commuter culture, particularly in the Willamette Valley, welcomed the new system, and voter participation began to climb. Driving time, work hours and family obligations were no longer an impediment for busy people who wanted to vote but couldn't make it to the polls.

It was plain to see: Absentee voting worked for Oregonians and brought them back into the process.

Clearly, it was time to have all special district elections done by mail-in ballot. To prove that it worked without fraud and didn't benefit either party, I asked the state Legislature for the opportunity to use vote-by-mail in special district elections, and it passed.

Albany was chosen as the first place to try it Ñ the first election of its kind in the nation Ñ because it is close to Salem and would be easy to monitor. We also knew that citizens in that city would be enthusiastic about pioneering an improved voting process.

And, as we all know, Albany came through. The voter turnout for that first Oregon vote-by-mail election was 97 percent, and people were really excited about it. It saved money, brought out the vote and eliminated many of the innocent mistakes made by the mostly volunteer workforce Ñ the thousands of individuals who used to operate polling places with little or no experience.

Since that first vote-by-mail election in 1981, the system has been expanded to include candidate elections, and voters have stuck with it for this simple reason: In this day and age, it just makes sense. Oregonians do want to participate in the process, and they need, and deserve, a system that is accurate, fair and designed for their convenience.

I hope every Oregon voter took advantage of this system. It's as true today as ever: 'Every vote counts.'

Norma Paulus is director of the Oregon Historical Society, based in Portland. She was Oregon's secretary of state from 1976 to 1984 and served in the Oregon Legislature from 1970 to 1976. She was chief author of the vote-by-mail bill first implemented in 1981.