Electing a Mail-Order Senator Oregon to Sponsor Nation's First Mail-In Ballot for a Member of Congress Series: The Liberal Oregon Democrat, Who Jumped into the Race Last Week, Is Expected to Gain Backing from Groups Eager to Seat More Women in the Senate., JACK SMITH/AP/FILE

Article excerpt

OREGON has long been known as "a laboratory of reform," as the Almanac of American Politics puts it. The first state to institute ballot initiative, referendum, and recall, it has also led on such politically touchy issues as statewide land-use planning and the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. Now, with the need to replace disgraced United States Sen. Bob Packwood (R), Oregon is pressing toward yet another first: nominating and electing a member of Congress by mail-in ballot. In response to the unanimous recommendation of the Senate Ethics Committee that the five-term lawmaker be expelled for sexual and official misconduct, Mr. Packwood has agreed to resign Oct. 1. Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) announced last week that a special party primary will be held Dec. 5. A special election to fill Packwood's slot will follow on Jan. 30. "We have a unique opportunity with this special election to reaffirm one of democracy's most basic principles: That government is best which is governed by the most," says Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling. The state has been holding mail-in elections on local issues since 1981, and the turnout in such cases typically is higher than those where voters go to the polls. Oregonians are known as independent-minded voters, historically choosing a mix of Republicans and Democrats for state and national office. But the timing of the elections, the fact that they will be by mail, and the lineup of declared candidates all seem to benefit Democrats - at least at the beginning of the race. "The election to replace Packwood is likely to be a high-profile election with a high-voter turnout ... favoring Democratic or independent candidates," observes longtime political commentator Russell Sadler. At the same time, Oregonians (who line up 43 percent Democrat, 37 percent Republican, and 21 percent independent or minor-party members) have been electing only Republican US senators since 1968, when Packwood ousted four-term veteran Wayne Morse (D). All of this should make for a lively campaign, including what observers say is likely to be a strong showing by female candidates from both parties. …