State proposes near-record fine for union-backed group’s foul-up with voter ballots

Defend Oregon, a union-backed political action committee supporting progressive ballot measures is facing the second largest election penalty in state history for failing to deliver 97 ballots it collected from Multnomah County voters on Election Day last fall.

The state Elections Division, part of Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s office, has assessed a fine of $94,750 for the elections violations. The maximum fine is $1,000 per count, and each ballot that wasn’t turned in is considered a separate violation.

“In the secretary’s view, the harm of not having a ballot counted is more severe than any other violation of election law,” said Steve Trout, state elections director in a letter Tuesday to Defend Oregon directors Becca Uherbelau and Christy Mason.

Trout wrote that neglecting to turn in the ballots was worse than deliberate violations such as attempting to sabotage an initiative petition and betting on an election.

The failure also harms the “election process and the public’s confidence in elections,” Trout said.

Uherbelau said in a statement that the organization accepts responsibility for the error.

“Increasing access to the ballot is central to our work at Defend Oregon, so we take this mistake very seriously and sincerely apologize to impacted voters who entrusted us with their ballots,” she said.

The Multnomah County Elections Office filed an elections complaint against Defend Oregon after Uherbelau on Nov. 7 turned in a box of 97 ballots that was found at the SEIU Local 503 Office the morning after the election.

Defend Oregon was collecting ballots from voters who hadn’t yet voted and had obstacles to dropping off or mailing their ballot to the county elections office. The practice is legal provided that canvassers turn in the ballots within 48 hours or before the ballot deadline.

Uherbelau said the ballots weren’t turned into Multnomah County by the 8 p.m. Nov. 6 deadline because of a “miscommunication” between two workers. One worker said he turned in 97 ballots at the SEIU Local 503 Office by 7 p.m. Election Day and told another worker they were there. That worker, tasked with shuttling ballots to the elections office, reported to Defend Oregon leaders not knowing about the ballots, according to Defend Oregon’s submission to the state Elections Division responding to the complaint.

 “From the very beginning, Defend Oregon has taken responsibility for the mistake during the November 2018 election that resulted in some ballots being turned in late,” Uherbleau said Tuesday. “Throughout the entire process, we have fully cooperated with the Secretary of State’s investigation into the matter.”

She said she turned in the ballots to the Multnomah County Elections Office once the ballots were discovered. Defend Oregon staffers also reached out to apologize to each voter whose ballot wasn’t turned in on time, she said. Staffers and volunteers knew the voters’ names from spreadsheets the organization keeps on collected ballots.

She said the organization has changed its ballot-collecting procedures.

“Ballot collection is a vital tool to ensure that Oregonians who might otherwise face obstacles to turning in their ballots are able to fully participate in our democracy,” she said.

Defend Oregon has the right to appeal the penalty to an administrative law judge, but a spokeswoman declined to say whether the organization will appeal.

The fine, if it stands, would be the second largest in Oregon history, said Debra Royal, Richardson’s chief of staff.

The largest fine was $116,000 levied against former state Rep. Dan Doyle for falsifying campaign finance reports in 2002, 2003 and 2004, Royal said.

Doyle, a Salem Republican also was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-506-0067. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.

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