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Feds should follow Oregon's lead and adopt vote by mail

President Lyndon Johnson urged Congress 51 years ago to pass the Voting Rights Act. And in the face of implacable opposition from southern states, Johnson clearly laid out the stakes: “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Sadly, half a century after that law began to remove the most egregious obstacles to voting, Americans are facing new barriers to exercising their fundamental right to vote. Across the country, there are stories of long lineVotes, inexplicable purges of voter rolls and new requirements that make it harder for citizens to vote. There is no excuse for accepting this state of affairs.

There is no excuse for citizens in Arizona to wait five hours to cast their ballot. There is no excuse for citizens in Rhode Island to find two out of every three polling places have closed. There is no excuse whatsoever for poor communities and minority communities across this country to see their polling places shuttered.

Seniors and disabled Americans should not have to wait in long lines or struggle to reach polling places. Working parents shouldn’t have to choose between going to work or going to vote. Voting should not be a test of endurance. It should not be a Kafkaesque experience in defeating bureaucracy.

Increasingly, too many voters show up to the polls on election day, only to find out their name is inexplicably missing from the voter rolls, or their ID doesn’t meet some new, more restrictive requirements.

These grossly unfair obstacles have sprouted like weeds across our nation ever since the Supreme Court overturned large portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, just this year, 17 states have passed new laws or rules to make it harder for their citizens to vote.

Thankfully, there is a solution. Oregon has led the nation in making voting more accessible. In Oregon, every voter receives a ballot two or three weeks before an election date.

Every Oregonian has ample time to research candidates and issues. And rather than waiting in long lines, Oregonians can mail their ballots back, or drop them off at ballot collection sites, many of which are open 24/7. No one has to take time off work just to exercise his or her constitutional rights.

Vote-by-mail won’t stop every state legislature from devising new ways to suppress voter turnout, but it will give voters more time to fight back. When Americans have two or three weeks to vote, they’ll have more time to challenge registration problems. There’s more time for citizens to defend their rights.

Oregon went to all vote-by-mail in 2000. Since then, we have consistently had voter turnout rates that are among the highest in the country. Oregon voting rates are especially high among young voters and in midterm elections. And as an added benefit, studies have shown that it saved taxpayers money to boot.

So my proposition is the rest of our country should follow Oregon’s lead and offer all voters a chance to vote by mail. To me, this is a no-brainer.

My plan is simple: Every voter in a federal election will receive a ballot in the mail. The federal government, through the Postal Service, will assist states with the costs of mailing ballots to registered voters. States can keep their current polling practices if they wish, but those states that choose a full vote-by-mail system will see their election costs significantly drop.

My hope is this can ignite a new campaign to make it easier, not harder, for Americans to vote.

Vote-by-mail is just a first step in fighting back against those who would disenfranchise their fellow citizens to gain a political edge. For instance, in my view, it should also be easier for all Americans to register to vote.

Oregon, again, is leading the way. Since January, every eligible voter is automatically registered to vote, eliminating extra trips to the DMV or county clerk’s office. Gov. Kate Brown, deserves enormous credit for shepherding this reform into law.

I know many of my colleagues and many voters are cynical about the chances of passing real reforms in this partisan day and age. My view is that voting rights are simply too important to abandon the field to special interests who would manipulate our government.

So once again, I urge my colleagues and voters to call for real reform to our voting system and ensure that every citizen who wants to vote has that opportunity.

Ron Wyden is the senior U.S. Senator from Oregon