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Election matters

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Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJackson County Clerk Chris Walker demonstrates the new ballot envelopes going out to local voters starting this weekend. The envelopes no longer include a secrecy envelope, but will include a security weave inside.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneBlank extra ballots presorted by district are kept in a secure room in the Jackson County Elections Office. Only authorized staff such as Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker have the key to the room, and a motion-activated camera switches on anytime the door is opened.
Jackson County Clerk details changes, including new envelopes and election security, as ballots arrive

With ballots arriving in Jackson County mailboxes, voters should be ready for slight changes to this year’s ballot envelopes, the contents inside them and the deadlines for turning them around.

Ballots for the Tuesday, May 17, primary election left the U.S. Postal Service processing facility Friday and were to arrive in Jackson County voters’ mailboxes as soon as this weekend, according to Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker, who has 27 years of experience in recording and election programs, and has been the county’s elected clerk since 2008.

There’s one fewer envelope this year, according to Walker. The perforated ballot secrecy envelope used in every election from 2000 to 2020 is gone.

Instead, the one ballot envelope now includes the security weave that used to be used in the old privacy envelope. Walker said the envelope design — first tested in Multnomah County during the 2020 election — still protects ballots from any prying eyes while simplifying the election process.

"It’s one less item that we have to maintain,“ Walker said.

The new ballot envelope is one of two easy-to-miss changes for voters. The other is a revised mail-in ballot deadline change that should have last-minute mailbox voters double-checking the fine print.

Effective this year, Oregon elections officials must accept mailed ballots up to seven days after election day — but only if the ballot has an election-day postmark.

Voting changes

This year’s Jackson County ballots no longer include a secrecy envelope. Instead, ballot envelopes now have a printed security weave inside for voter privacy.

Oregon ballots may now be mailed on election day, but must have an election-day postmark — May 17 for the primary election and Nov. 8 for the general election. Ballots dropped off in U.S. mailboxes after pickup will have the next day’s postmark.

Ballots dropped into a USPS mailbox after election day’s final pickup time will carry the next day’s postmark and won’t be valid. In prior elections, ballots that arrived in the mail after polls closed weren’t accepted under state law, and elections officials advised voters to stick to dedicated ballot boxes on election day.

Official drop boxes are still an option this year. Ballots will be accepted until 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at marked locations at the Medford, Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix and Rogue River library branches, and at the Jackson County Elections Office, 1101 W. Main St., Medford.

The seven official drop boxes across Jackson County are monitored by Elections Office surveillance cameras, and election staff follow rigid security protocols that ensure the ballots are accounted for at every step.

“From the time we receive the ballot to the time it goes through tally, we have multiple trackings,” Walker said.

A ballot’s life from dropoff to tabulation

Ballots from official dropoff locations are transported to the elections office in bags locked with numbered one-time-use plastic padlock seals. Elections workers note the number of ballots received, the origin and time and an individual seal number before locking the ballots and slip in the secure bag.

Mailed-in ballots follow similar protocols to an intake room accessible only by authorized personnel and monitored at all times by motion-activated surveillance cameras.

Elections officials run the new ballots through their first pass of an advanced sorting machine that simultaneously scans bar codes on the envelope, photographs the signature and kicks back unsigned ballots so election staff can alert the voter, and creates audit logs that are routinely cross-checked with batch-tracking forms.

“We keep track of every single step as it’s going through,” Walker said.

Paid election workers with specialized training in handwriting recognition inspect each and every ballot to ensure that the signature on the ballot matches what is on file in the voter’s registration record. Election staff mail notices to voters when discrepancies are flagged. Staff contact the voter by mail when there’s a problem, with instructions and deadlines.

“Our signature team can’t even tell if they’re Democrat or Republican,” Walker said. “Our envelopes that they’re looking at give no indication as to party affiliation at all.”

Ballots with matching signatures go through a final sort that arranges them in order of Jackson County’s 50 precincts and cuts open the envelope.

Two-person election board teams sit together at tables and prepare ballots into 200-piece batches. They remove ballots from envelopes signature-side down and take turns inspecting the ballots and verifying their ballot counts with batch tracking logs while the second member — required to be different political parties — verifies the other’s work.

“They cannot be the same party affiliation,” Walker said. “It’s an integrity issue, and it’s what the law says.”

One 200-ballot batch at a time, the ballots are processed in a tally room. The room is accessible only by Walker and Elections Program Manager Trisha Myers, and is equipped with multiple motion-activated security cameras to protect the equipment.

The scanners and tally system go through a public certification process a week before the election, and again the day vote tabulating begins.

Scanners are rigorously tested to ensure the system’s “logic and accuracy,” according to Walker, demonstrating that scanners can properly read and count every possible vote on every precinct and party’s primary ballot. Computers involved in the tabulation process are never connected to the internet.

The votes are securely stored after they’re counted — standard protocol is to keep them for two years after the election, but ballots are kept longer if a public records request requires the county to maintain election materials beyond the statutory retention period.

It’s unlikely that Jackson County ballots from the 2020 election will be purged this year.

Walker said there are “several” public records requests scrutinizing local votes, some as recently as “a couple weeks ago.”

“It’s a stressful environment ... but we have to meet the intent of the laws and we will continue to do so,” Walker said. “We don’t set the laws, we follow the laws, and public records requests are allowed, according to the law.”

Election fraud and checks against it

According to a February 2022 survey from the nonprofit Oregon Values and Beliefs Center about the 2020 presidential election and political unrest, 27% of the 1,584 Oregonians who participated believed there was “significant fraudulent voting” in the 2020 election. Some 8% of those surveyed believed that despite the significant fraudulent voting it had no impact on results, while another 19% believed “major” fraudulent voting changed the results of the election.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office describes voter fraud as “exceedingly rare.” Out of more than 2.37 million Oregon votes cast in the 2020 election, election officials received 108 reports of alleged voter fraud. Out of those 108 reports, only one case was referred to the Oregon Department of Justice, and another is “pending resolution.”

The state’s Legislative Fiscal Office reviewed the vote-by-mail system between 2000 and 2019, and found that of the 61 million ballots cast, only 38 convictions of voter fraud were obtained.

“This amounts to a .0006% rate,” according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

According to a Heritage Foundation election fraud database, Jackson County’s most recent election fraud conviction was in 2016, when a then-18-year-old Medford woman attending school in Colorado filled out ballots in both states. She ultimately canceled her Colorado voter registration and was fined $225, according to a 2019 Oregonian/OregonLive report referenced in the database.

That mistrust has prompted some political candidates to advocate for returns to a seemingly simpler time.

Mark Cavener of Klamath Falls, a candidate vying for Cliff Bentz’s Oregon District 2 congressional seat in the Republican primary who claims “Trump is still our president” and founded an organization called the Election Integrity Education Institute of Oregon, calls for election reforms that include banning mail-in and early voting and banning all electronic election equipment.

Walker, who has worked election programs before and after Oregon’s vote-by-mail system went into effect in 2000, has seen firsthand how online registration and vote-by-mail programs have simplified the voting process while allowing elections workers to keep rigid paper trails.

Hardly any voters needed assistance during the Mail Tribune’s two-hour tour of the facility Tuesday morning, despite being the final day for voter registration ahead of the primary election. Walker called it “just like a business-is-normal day.”

She questioned why anyone would want to go back to extended waits on weekdays to register, update addresses or change political parties.

"We don’t see that, we don’t see the long lines. ... I don’t know why anyone would want to go back to it,“ Walker said.

In addition to being a time saver, electronic systems and assists make elections more accurate and secure, Walker said.

“Most election errors are based on human error,” Walker said.

When the bar code on a received ballot envelope is scanned, it’s tracked locally and in state databases. If a registered voter casts a replacement ballot, the new ballot flags the old one in the system and kicks it out.

For instance, the state works to prevent deceased people from getting mailed ballots by sharing deaths logged by the Oregon State Vital Records Division with a national voter registration system known as the Elections Registration Information Center, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

No matter how many ballots they get, a registered voter votes only once.

“They can get as many as five subsequent ballots thinking they’re trying to bilk the system,” Walker said. “We have ways to prevent that.”

A mobile future

Jackson and Umatilla counties already saw their first votes cast by a mobile device in the 2020 election.

About 300 military and overseas Jackson County residents were eligible for the pilot mobile voting program in the 2020 election, which continues for absentee-ballot eligible residents this year.

The mobile voting program is exclusively for locals who typically vote through absentee ballots through the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act or UOCAVA, according to Walker.

“Right now it’s risk-limited,” Walker said. “Is it ready for the masses? No. But we need to have a seat at the table.”

“We need a seat at the table to make sure this works in the future.”

Even at 300 votes it’s a small percentage of all Jackson County votes cast in the 2020 presidential election. According to Oregon’s certified election results, Jackson County saw 127,165 presidential votes, of which 63,869 went to Donald Trump and 59,478 went to Joe Biden.

Although Walker does not believe the technology is ready for widespread adoption, she does believe it could be expanded slightly.

“The disability community could really utilize this,” Walker said, thinking of sight-impaired voters in particular.

‘The environment is just so different’

On Nov. 24, 2020, shortly after the Jackson County presidential election results were certified, an unknown suspect painted on the blacktop outside the election office, “Vote don’t work. Next time bullets.”

Walker said the threat shook her and her workers.

“I really was shocked when we saw that,” Walker said. “It literally threw us off.”

Between the continued records requests surrounding the county’s 2020 election results, falsehoods swirling around social media, the rash of anger and suspicion since the 2020 election has weighed heavily on Walker.

“The anger is the one I’ve struggled with,” Walker said. “I’d like to say it hasn’t had an effect, but it does — in your personal life, your work life — and I’m not a wimpy person.”

She acknowledged that elections by their nature leave some people happy and others unhappy, but it’s bothered her to see it taken out on election officials just doing their job.

She urges locals to get their information from her, not from unverified posts on Facebook.

“Please contact your local election official,” Walker said. “We should be your trusted source, not social media.”

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