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Election chief's memo reveals shortcomings

Once again, a key state agency has failed to upgrade its computer technology, putting a vital government function at risk. Once again, the answer from state officials is to fire someone.

Steve Trout, the state elections director in the secretary of state’s office was terminated on Thursday — while votes were still being counted from the Nov. 3 election. Trout had planned to leave his post anyway on Dec. 15 — but not until the election work was finished and the results certified.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno’s chief of staff told Oregon Public Broadcasting that Trout had given notice he was leaving, and “in order to ensure a smooth transition, his last day was Friday.” She praised his work and his knowledge.

Trout sent a memo to both candidates for secretary of state the day before the election, warning them of serious issues with the state’s aging elections technology, which he said was vulnerable to breakdowns. The Oregon Centralized Voter Registration system runs on a Windows Server 2008 system that Microsoft hasn’t supported since January, and it does not have multi-factor identification to protect it from hackers.

The department’s websites that serve the public are on a single power supply and only one internet connection, with no backup, Trout wrote, and there are no plans to improve that. He said he had requested a dozen upgrades, including replacing the ORESTAR website that contains information about candidate contributions and expenditures filed by campaigns. We can attest to the need for improvements to that system, as can anyone who has used it to access campaign finance data.

Trout also made allegations about federal funding he said would have to be forfeited because it wasn’t spent in time. Legislative officials disputed that characterization.

We don’t pretend to know the details about Trout’s tenure with the department, and it’s not the first time he has been terminated. But county clerks around the state speak highly of his expertise and knowledge, and several expressed shock at his abrupt dismissal.

None of this is to suggest that the Nov. 3 election was not conducted in an efficient and trustworthy manner. Oregon has a reputation as a leader in universal vote-by-mail, something other states have emulated this year as they implemented their own systems in response to the pandemic.

But this is not the first state agency that is apparently limping along on outdated technology. The Employment Department was completely overwhelmed earlier this year when its antiquated system was unable to handle the explosion of unemployment benefit claims and the extra benefits appropriated by Congress to help workers who lost jobs because of the coronavirus shutdown.

Now it appears the state’s ability to conduct elections is at serious risk in the future if technological shortcomings are not corrected.

The 2021 Legislature and Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan must step up and address these problems, sooner rather than later.