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San Diego’s 1981 Vote-By-Mail Election Was Largest In Nation, Inspired Oregon

A voter completes a mail-in-ballot for the November 6, 2012 general election.

Photo by Ho John Lee, Flickr

Above: A voter completes a mail-in-ballot for the November 6, 2012 general election.

Up until 2011, Oregon was the only state in the country that did all of its elections entirely by mail. Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown said the state got the idea for an entirely postal voting system from a surprising source: San Diego.

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1981 Mail-In Ballot Report

1981 Mail-In Ballot Report

A report on San Diego's 1981 vote-by-mail only election.

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Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown said Oregon got the idea for an entirely postal voting system from a surprising source: San Diego.

State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez recently proposed a bill that would allow California counties to conduct special elections entirely by mail. But the city of San Diego already has the power to conduct elections completely by mail with a City Council decree. The only time the city did that was in 1981, when the city held a special election on a referendum over — what else? — building a convention center.

The vote became the largest mail-in-ballot-only election in the country at that time, and was heralded by The New York Times as a wave of the future. San Diego's then Mayor Pete Wilson said it ''will quite literally shape San Diego clear through the turn of the century.''

But that shaping didn't come. The city hasn't held a vote-by-mail-only election since. But, the move still had other impacts. Oregon's then Secretary of State Norma Paulus sent a group of legislators to San Diego to observe the election. They were apparently impressed, said Brown, Oregon's current secretary of state.

"After viewing that process, they came back and passed legislation in 1981 to allow all off cycle local elections to be done by mail," Brown said.

From there, the state expanded its vote-by-mail elections. In 1998, a ballot measure asked whether to make all elections in Oregon entirely vote-by-mail, and an overwhelming majority — almost 70 percent of Oregon voters — approved it.

The state now regularly has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the county. In the 2012 general election, voter turnout was 82.8 percent, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

San Diego's 1981 referendum asked voters whether the city should build a $224 million convention center in the Columbia neighborhood downtown. While backers of the project argued in The New York Times "the project would generate jobs and tourist revenues and that it would be the most important element in a grand design to revitalize the downtown area," 56.5 percent of voters said the convention center should not be built.

Two years later, voters approved construction of the convention center on land owned by the Port of San Diego, where it sits today.

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