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Legislature passes election worker safety bill

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker processes ballots at the Jackson County Elections Office. An election worker safety bill Walker endorsed passed both houses of the Legislature with wide bipartisan support and now awaits the governor’s signature.

An Oregon election worker safety bill that prompted Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker to testify at the Statehouse was passed by the Oregon Legislature and awaits a signature from the governor.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed House Bill 4144 Thursday, adding stiffer penalties for anyone who threatens or harasses an election worker in the course of their duties and providing exemptions in voter registration and state public records laws for election workers in having to disclose their addresses.

The bill’s passage comes after Walker testified Feb. 15 before the House Rules Committee about a violent threat painted on the parking lot of the elections office in Medford after the 2020 election.

When reached by phone Thursday, Walker praised the bill’s quick passage with “overwhelming bipartisan support.” She said state legislators “heard our voice.”

“The threats, the bad players, they recognized that they’re out there and they’re a threat to our democracy, to our republic,” Walker said. “They heard our request, and that’s really what means a lot.”

Walker told legislators that she contacted local and federal law enforcement in November 2020 after the Jackson County Elections Office parking lot was vandalized in paint with the message, “Vote don’t work. Next time bullets.”

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan testified at the same hearing that at least two Oregon county clerks received death threats since the 2020 election, and that three of Oregon’s 36 county clerks had retired over the past year.

Fagan praised the law’s passage in a statement Thursday.

“This bill sends a strong message to those who would seek to interfere with elections: Threats and harassment will not change the outcome of elections; they will be met with penalties,” Fagan said.

Walker expressed gratitude to Fagan, among others who spoke in favor of protections, including the League of Women Voters and the Oregon Association of County Clerks.

Walker likened the new law to a stalking order or a restraining order in that an elections worker still needs to be aware of their surroundings.

“Keep in mind it is a piece of paper,” Walker said. “It is not a fail safe, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Walker said any resident should be proactive in their own security.

Despite the threats, Walker said she and her staff were determined to “just go about our job” conducting fair, accurate and transparent elections.

“If we’re sitting there living in fear, we can’t do our job.”

Walker said she is still shocked that threats happened here in Southern Oregon, but she said most people treat her staff with respect.

“I have every confidence in the electorate,” Walker said. “We hear the good from people every day.”

Since coming forward about the threat, Walker has been interviewed by state and national news outlets and organizations, including the Pew Charitable Trust.

“People are taking it seriously around the country,” Walker said.

Walker said said she’d like to see more people get their information about how her staff conducts elections directly from her instead of from some unverified post on social media. She and her staff say they strive to act transparently and answer voter questions with courtesy and respect

“Just give me a call,” Walker said. “Your local elections official should be a trusted source.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.