Oregon puts its stamp on vote-by-mail

Multnomah County

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — With much of the nation still locked down because of the COVID-19 crisis, calls are growing to conduct the nation’s Nov. 3 general election by mail. Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has been especially supportive, repeatedly pointing to this state’s vote-by-mail system as proof that it can be done.

“Oregon has shown voting by mail works — no matter your political preferences. It can work for the rest of America, too,” Wyden wrote on the NBC News website on April 30 after introducing legislation to require all states to offer voting by mail.

But it is already too late for most states to create a widespread vote-by-mail process that works as smoothly as the one in Oregon. In this state, the first results are traditionally available within minutes after the polls closing at 8 p.m. They are usually updated every few hours and almost complete by the next morning, with even the closest races being settled in just a few days.

Such speed and precision is no accident. Oregon’s system was phased in over nearly four decades, giving state and county election officials plenty of time to perfect it. 

The Oregon Legislature first approved the option in 1981 and it was adopted by a majority of counties by 1987. Wyden became Oregon’s first U.S. senator to be elected in a vote-by-mail election in 1996. It wasn’t until 1998 that Oregon voters approved a measure requiring that all elections be vote by mail. The state then became the first to conduct a presidential election by mail in 2000. 

Only four other states even send mail ballots to all registered voters without requiring them to request one first: Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on Friday, May 8, to send a ballot to every registered voter in November, making that state the sixth to do so. 

Testing Oregon’s system

But that is just a small part of the vote-by-mail process. Multnomah County elections officials have been gearing up for the May 19 primary election since January — and that is after updating the hardware and software that will count the votes several years ago, including the addition of six Fujitsu fi-6800 scanners and a computer program capable of telling the difference between an intentional vote and a smudge on a ballot.

But more than that, the computer program has to accurately juggle the 654 different ballot configurations that will be used in the primary election in the county. There are so many because they must be customized by political party and to accurately reflect only those combination of offices, districts and jurisdictions that apply to where each voter lives. For example, every voter in the county is eligible to vote in all national and state races. But voters also live in different county commission districts, Metro districts, school districts and cities.

“And there are also federal-only ballots,” said Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott.

County elections officials conducted the first of three public tests of its counting equipment on Friday, May 8. It was part of a larger Logic and Accuracy Test that began weeks ago to ensure the integrity of the results.

The first public test was held in a large, secure room on the first floor of the headquarters of the Multnomah County Elections Division, 1040 S.E. Morrison St. None of the equipment is connected to any computers outside the room, either by cable or Wi-Fi. After the official count begins, the results will be moved to a computer outside the room for posting on single-use USB drives.

During the test, Scott ran specially prepared ballots through the scanners. Each machine scanned different version of each 654 ballot styles. Some had no ovals filled in. Others had the first choice in every race marked. The rest had different patterns. After all ballots were run through each scanner, Scott and other election officials checked to make sure they recorded the voters and non-votes accurately.

“This is exciting for about the first five minutes,” Scott said at the beginning of the hour-long test.

Scott expects the elections division will count around 300,000 ballots in the primary election and about 500,000 in the general. Interest started out high, Scott said, with the most ballots ever returned on the first Monday after being mailed out.

“There are a lot bored people at home,” joked Scott, who said returning ballot has subsequently fallen to normal levels, despite this being the first election with pre-paid postage approved by the 2019 Oregon Legislature.

Test, then verify

Even if all goes well, a small percent of ballots will still be personally inspected to determine how the votes were cast. Although instructions clearly call for ovals next to names and measures to be filled in, some voters do such things as highlighting their choices with colored markers, circling their choices, and crossing out their other choices. Observers from all political parties have the option of overseeing how election officials decide such votes. 

In addition to the Portland Tribune, the test was attended by two volunteers from the Multnomah County Republican Party. They included Andrew Nisbet, head of the party’s Election Integrity Committee, who has personally observed every vote-by-mail election in the county for more than 20 years.

“It’s like jury duty, only more boring. It’s a civic duty. Somebody should be watching the process,” Nisbet said.

Although President Donald Trump says vote-by-mail is subject to fraud, Nisbet said he does not believe any election he has observed has been so compromised. 

“The elections can’t be hacked in the conventional sense of the term,” Nisbet said. 

Despite that, Nisbet said he believes some people have forged signatures on ballots mailed to deceased relatives or delivered to them by mistake. But he said that election workers catch them when they compare those signatures on the return envelopes to the digital versions of the original voter registration forms. Those ballots are set aside and the voters are sent post cards asking them to come to the office and verify their signatures. Few ever do.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for retail voter fraud, but I don’t believe it’s every changed the outcome of an election,” Nisbet said.

The next public test was conducted on Tuesday, May 12, the day before counting the real ballots was scheduled to begin. The third will be conducted before the results are certified 20 days after the election.

Voters’ ballot must reach the elections office or be deposited in an approved dropbox by 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 19. For instructions on how to vote by mail, visit the Multnomah County Elections page.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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