Elections officials will start sending out ballots next Wednesday. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Ben Morris likes to say voting is in Oregon’s DNA.

“We were the first state to create the ballot initiative process over 100 years ago,” said Morris, communications director for Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. “We were among the first states to let women vote during the suffrage movement.”

And, of course, Oregon pioneered vote by mail.

On Nov. 8, voters will cast their preferences in the midterm election. But to do so, they need to register by next Tuesday, and the following day ballots start going out. Registering in Oregon is relatively easy, and most experts agree that Oregon has few barriers to voting with the adoption of mail-in ballots.

That story dates back more than 40 years, when Del Riley, the Linn County clerk, became intrigued by the notion of allowing citizens to vote by mail. In November 1981, Riley and Linn County ran the state’s first vote-by-mail election. On the ballot: two school district levies and one city charter amendment.

Over two decades, through fits and starts and waves of opposition – including attacks from, at different times, both of the state’s two major political parties and a gubernatorial veto — Oregon’s vote-by-mail system took root in local elections. In November 1998, state voters decided by a better than 2-to-1 margin) to expand it to include state primary and general elections.

Today, almost a half-century after localities in Linn County and elsewhere in Oregon pioneered the vote-by-mail system, election officials across the state, in urban counties and rural, say it has developed into a smashing success – one that has boosted voter turnout, limited fraud to a handful of isolated individual cases and is more secure than the old system, in which voters generally had to report to polling places on Election Day.

Vote by mail is one of the reasons why a recent study concluded that Oregon remains the state with the fewest barriers to voting. 

The study didn’t surprise any of the county clerks the Capital Chronicle interviewed for this story.

“One of the great things that Oregon can be really proud of is that the clerks are such a dedicated group of people that they’re going to get it done no matter what,” said Tim Scott, Multnomah County elections director and the current president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks. “They’re going to find a way to make sure that the elections are counted accurately and on time.”

Today, though, the officials who oversee elections in the state’s 36 counties worry that misinformation about voter fraud and claims of rigged elections, often coming from outside the state, is eroding trust in voting and, by extension, democracy. Election officials say people who take the time to find out about their operations usually come away convinced. And the clerks are more than happy to show off the processes that have been precisely calibrated over the years to result in clean elections. 

“I wish more people could see the entire process because I think that would allow their fears to be alleviated,” said Derrin Richardson, the clerk in Harney County.

Of course, that assumes someone watching the process is doing so with an open mind – and Steve Druckenmiller, the clerk in Linn County, said that’s not always the case. Increasingly, he said, ”you get the ones who want to try to grill you and catch you.”

Marcie Richey, of the Linn County clerk’s office, demonstrates the process she and other elections workers can use to examine a ballot to determine a voter’s intent. (Photo by Mike McInally/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Registration

Voting in Oregon starts with registering, and Oregon has worked over the past several years to make that easier. 

A big step came with 2016’s “motor-voter” law,” in which citizens are automatically registered to vote or have their registration information updated when they interact with Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services.

The state’s motor-voter law has boosted the number of registered voters in Oregon. Before the law passed, Oregon had 2.2 million registered voters. As of October 2022, the state boasted more than 2.9 million registered voters – an increase of 32% over the last six years. (Oregon’s population grew by about 7% in the same time period.)

But registering to vote at the DMV isn’t the only method available to prospective voters. You can register to vote online by accessing the Secretary of State’s “My Vote” website. You’ll need an Oregon driver’s license, permit or ID card number issued by the DMV. If you don’t have any of those, you can still use the online voter registration application. The information you enter will display on a voter registration card (a PDF document) that you’ll need to print, sign and deliver to your county elections office to complete your registration. (If you want to check on or update your registration, the “My Vote” website is a good resource.)

You also can register in person at your county elections office. And you might stumble across a voter-registration event being held in public over the next couple of weeks.

To register to vote in Oregon, you must be a U.S. citizen, a resident of Oregon and at least 16 years old. If you’re not yet 18 years old, you won’t receive a ballot until an election occurs on or after your 18th birthday.

But keep a couple of points in mind about voter registration in Oregon:

  • First, the deadline for the Nov. 8 election is Tuesday, Oct. 18 – you have to be registered by 11:59:59 p.m. on that day (by law, the deadline is the 21st calendar day before the election). You can’t vote in the Nov. 8 election if you’re not registered by then.
  • Second, you’ll notice that at some point in the process, you’ll have to provide a signature. That’s important, for reasons we’ll get into later. 

The day after registration closes, Morris said, the state begins mailing ballots. 

The ballot

All you need to mark your ballot, Morris said, is a pen with blue or black ink. Fill in the oval next to the candidate you prefer or the “yes” or “no” ovals on state or local issues. Sometimes, a voter might circle an oval instead of filling it in or do something similar; in a case like that, an election official looks at the ballot in question; if the voter’s intent is clear – for example, if a voter circled “yes” on a measure instead of filling out the oval – that vote is counted.

Morris said voters shouldn’t think of the ballot as a test; it’s not necessary to vote on every race and measure for a ballot to count.

Voters occasionally do odd things to ballots. Chris Walker, the clerk in Jackson County, said occasionally a voter will cut off the top of the ballot (the portion with the instructions), perhaps thinking that will help with the tabulation. It does not help – but even those ballots are counted. A voter in Linn County scrawled a grocery list on the blank side of a ballot before sending it in. That ballot also was counted.

To return your ballot, place it in the return envelope. Sign the back of the envelope. (This is a very important step; more on this later.) The return envelope is postage-paid, so it doesn’t need a stamp to be mailed. Or you can drop it in one of the official drop boxes in each Oregon county; sites for those drop boxes are listed on the websites of each county elections office.

Under a new state law, if a ballot is postmarked by Election Day which this year is on Nov. 8, it counts if it arrives at a county elections office within a week of the election. They have to be deposited in a ballot box by 8 p.m. on Nov. 8.

Voters need to drop off their ballots by 8 p.m. Election Day or make sure they’re postmarked that day. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The elections office

The process of gathering and tabulating votes varies a bit from county to county – some counties, for example, have automated some processes – but the essential steps are the same in each office.

Before the ballot envelopes are even opened, every signature is verified by matching it against signatures on file in the state’s voter registration database. 

Richardson in Harney County said voters often “don’t understand that every signature is looked at. And I wish we could get that piece across, that every signature is verified.”

Added Scott: “I just want people to understand that when, when you’re signing your registration card or your driver’s license, that signature matters. And I wish folks would remember that when they’re signing their ballots.”

In smaller counties, election officials do the work of verifying signatures personally. They get frequent training from handwriting experts.

In Multnomah County, Scott recently was able to invest in an automated signature matching system – but he set the software to only approve signatures that are “pretty much a spot-on match.”  The system verifies about half of the signatures in Multnomah County. Humans continue to verify the other half.

Very few signatures are rejected, the clerks said – and even in those cases, voters have a chance to “cure” their ballots. Officials send letters to voters whose signatures have been rejected. Voters have 21 days to resolve the matter; if they do so, the ballot is counted.

The signature-verification process is one of the system’s strongest safeguards against fraud, the officials said.

After signatures are verified, the envelopes are opened, with election workers taking extreme care to preserve the secrecy of the ballot itself. In Linn County, for example, the machine that opens the envelopes is set up in such a way that the person removing the ballot cannot see how it’s been marked. Similar safeguards are in place in every county elections office.

Workers make sure that the number of envelopes matches the number of ballots in each batch. If a rare discrepancy arrives, it’s sometimes because a couple has mailed two ballots back in one envelope. If both voters have signed the envelope, the ballots count. 

Miko Sarmiento of the Linn County Clerk’s Office demonstrates a machine that automatically opens return envelopes with ballots inside. The operator cannot see how the ballot inside has been marked. (Photo by Mike McInally/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

(The hole in the envelope, by the way, serves a couple of purposes; for one, it makes it easy for workers to make sure nothing has been left in the envelope. Second, it allows batches of envelopes to be zip-tied together and stored. Ballots and envelopes are stored, separately, for two years.)

Each step along the way is carefully tracked – and members of the public can watch, either through closed-circuit cameras such as the ones used in Linn County or in person.

Ballots are tabulated by scanning devices that are never connected to the internet; this eliminates the possibility that a hacker could access a device. In fact, in Jackson County, Walker makes sure that the ports on the tabulating devices are sealed.

Results are reported to the state Secretary of State’s office and to county websites by using secured hard drives. In Harney County, Richardson buys flash drives by the dozens and never uses the same one twice.

The officials say it adds up to a secure system that is rarely a target of fraud. In fact, Morris, from the Secretary of State’s  Office, said that since 2000, there have been 38 criminal convictions for voter fraud out of 61 million ballots cast. 

Those convictions have been isolated cases, Morris said. “There’s never been a single instance of widespread voter fraud,” he said.

That’s part of the reason why Oregon elections officials keep making the case for mail-in voting. 

And it’s why they invite people who are curious about the system to take a closer look.

In Harney County, Richardson invited the public to witness the certification and accuracy testing he did in his office before May’s primary election.

“So one of my very, very biggest critics in our county came to this and he spent an hour and 45 minutes with me here going through the process,” Richardson said. “And when he left, he turned to me and said, ‘Wow, I really like what I see here.’ I counted that as a win, because that was just huge. And that proved to me that what we’re doing is the right thing.”


Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Mike McInally, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Mike McInally is a longtime reporter and editor who's worked at the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Missoulian, in Missoula, Montana.