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Jackson County clerk speaks for election worker safety bill

file photoThe ballot box at the county Elections Office on West Main Street in Medford.
“Vote don’t work, next time bullets” was painted on the Jackson County Elections Office parking on Nov. 24, 2020, shortly after presidential election results were certified, according to testimony that Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker made to the Oregon House Rules Committee Tuesday. [Still from Oregon Legislature livestream]
Elections office was vandalized with threat after 2020 results were certified

The day after the Jackson County Elections Office certified its 2020 election results, the Medford office received a threat too large to ignore.

“Vote don’t work” and “Next time bullets” were found painted across the elections office parking lot in Medford the morning of Nov. 24, 2020, Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker testified Tuesday at a legislative hearing in favor of new laws protecting elections workers.

The vandalism did not gain attention in the local press at the time, Walker said in a Zoom meeting before the Rules Committee in the Oregon House of Representatives, “and in my honest opinion I really did not want it to gain press.”

“My reasoning was by giving them attention, I thought we were empowering them,” Walker said.

Blogger and former county commissioner Peter Sage picked up the story in 2021, according to Walker.

Walker said she documented the vandalism that morning and contacted the sheriff, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The vandalism, however, rattled her staff.

“We spent rest of the day pretty much in shock that this had happened here,” Walker said. “The noise happening around the country had hit home. ... We continue our good works, but the threats received are always in the back of your mind.”

Walker is serving her fourth term as Jackson County’s clerk and has 27 years of experience in recording and elections programs. She told the bipartisan Rules Committee that the hearing Tuesday morning in favor of House Bill 4144 was her first time speaking to the Legislature.

Known as the Election Worker Safety Bill, the proposed legislation would provide exemptions for election workers in having to disclose their addresses in public records laws, and would include steeper penalties for anyone who threatens or harasses an election worker in the course of their duties, or in response to a decision related to election duties.

Walker called the protection of election workers “a nonpartisan issue,” and said the proposed legislation is supported by the Oregon Association of County Clerks.

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan used the Jackson County vandalism to illustrate the importance of House Bill 4144.

“This is the unfortunate reality that our election workers are now living with every single day,” Fagan said.

The states of Washington, Vermont, Maine, New Mexico and Colorado are considering similar legislation, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.

Fagan told the Oregon House Rules Committee, which is chaired by House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland and includes Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, that a survey conducted last month by the Oregon Elections Division found that 10 of the 13 elections workers surveyed had experienced harassment or threats “while just doing their jobs.”

At least two Oregon county clerks have received threats since the 2020 election. Fagan provided a segment of a handwritten threat to an Oregon county clerk in January 2022 that included the question, “Does that require a call to arms?? It should!! I am coming after you.”

Fagan testified that it’s leading to a “spike in retirements” among elections workers across the country, including three county clerks among Oregon’s 36 counties.

“These are hardworking nonpartisan professionals who are doing incredibly important work in a very, very challenging time,” Fagan said.

Others who spoke included League of Women Voters President Rebecca Gladstone, who sought broader protections beyond just an elections worker’s home address to include data privacy and protections for family members.

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