Bill Burgess, Marion County clerk inserts a ballot into an envelope on Wednesday, Sept. 30. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Local and state elections officials say they don’t expect mail delays to interfere with general election voting in Oregon and that long-practiced security measures ensure ballots will be properly counted.
A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election because of the coronavirus pandemic. The shift in other states to such voting this year has sparked confusion, misinformation and concern across the country, especially in states where voters typically go to a polling place.
But in Oregon, where vote by mail has been the law since 1998, little is changing.
“We have been doing this for decades and have a well-established system supported by local and federal partners to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote, has the opportunity to do so in the most convenient way possible,” wrote Secretary of State Bev Clarno in response to questions from Salem Reporter.
County clerks in Marion and Polk counties said they’re fielding more questions from voters this year because of misinformation about vote-by-mail systems.
Unlike other states, those registered to vote in Oregon don’t have to take any action to get a ballot – they will be mailed to the address using during registration.
States that don’t regularly use vote by mail, voters choosing to do so typically have to request ballots. National attention on well-intended efforts to explain that process to American voters have left some Oregonians confused.
“Because Oregon has been a vote-by-mail state for so long, some of that information didn’t necessarily pertain to our state and our office,” said Cole Steckley, elections clerk for Polk County.
In Oregon, the balloting process starts with county workers designing the ballots, which vary based on the cities and other districts voters live in. This election, Marion County has 144 different ballots, and Polk County has 22.
Election workers use the current voter roll for the county to assign a ballot and ballot envelope to each voter. The envelope gets its own ID number with a barcode, so election workers can track the exact ballot packet sent to each voter, and when it comes back.
If a county needs to mail a voter a new ballot for any reason, like a change of address or because the first one was lost, election workers will invalidate the first ballot envelope in the database. If the voter mails back the first ballot anyway, it would be flagged as invalid when it’s scanned in and not counted, preventing anyone from voting twice.
Ballots are mailed out in three rounds. Military and overseas voters get ballots sent in mid-September, because of the time needed to handle international mail. A handful of those ballots have already been voted and returned in Marion County, Clerk Bill Burgess said.
Next are voters with a residential address in Oregon, but a mailing address in another state. That group includes college students attending out of state and “snowbirds” who spend the cooler months in Arizona or Florida but live most of the year locally. Those ballots will go to the post office on Monday, Oct. 5.
For all other voters, Marion County plans to mail ballots out Oct. 14, and Polk County on Oct. 15. Marion County has about 212,000 registered voters, Polk County, 59,000.
Both counties contract with a company in Portland that does mail insertion to assemble the packets mailed to voters. Ballots are taken to Portland, where machines put the ballot, return envelope and fliers listing ballot drop box locations into an envelope. Sensors monitor the weight of envelopes to ensure none accidentally have two ballots or none at all.
After insertion, ballots are delivered to the U.S. Postal Service in Portland to be sorted and mailed to voters. All Salem-area mail is sorted in Portland, and elections mail is no different.
Clarno and Burgess said they’ve both been assured the U.S. Postal Service will meet its standards for processing election mail, which specify ballots should be delivered within a week of being mailed. That’s true for ballots being sent to voters, as well as those voters mail back.
Election mail is clearly marked, and the Postal Service has design standards to make sure it’s easy to tell which envelopes contain ballots.
“We give it top priority,” said Ernie Swanson, Postal Service spokesman for Oregon.
If you’ve recently moved, your ballot doesn’t get forwarded to your new address – a security feature of Oregon’s system. Instead, your county elections office is notified your ballot couldn’t be delivered.
If you’ve set up mail forwarding, the elections office will send a postcard to your new address letting you know you need to update your registration. You can check the address you’re registered at and update it using the Secretary of State’s MyVote tool online. That tool also allows you to see that your ballot has been received and accepted by elections officials.
Wildfire evacuees who are living elsewhere can use that website to update their registration with their temporary mailing address e. That means a homeowner in Detroit who lost their home in the fire can still get the same ballot as other Detroit residents, even if they’re temporarily living in Salem.
If a Marion County voter’s ballot can’t be delivered because the mailing address is a home that burned down, they can still pick it up. The Postal Service is holding all mail for wildfire victims, including ballots, at the Lyons or Mill City post offices, Burgess said. Ballots will be held until Election Day.
To be counted, ballots must be received by the county clerk no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day. Election officials advise mailing all ballots at least one week before the election to ensure they arrive on time.
Voters can also return ballots in a drop box, with locations around Marion and Polk counties. Voters should plan to use those drop boxes if delivering their ballot within six days of Election Day.
Election workers regularly pick up ballots from drop boxes in the days leading up until the election and return them to the county clerk’s office for processing. Ballots mailed are also delivered to the county clerk’s office. In Marion County, voters can sign up for a new service called Ballot Trax, which can text, email or call you when your ballot is mailed to you and when it’s received and processed. The service is free.
Voters with questions or who don’t receive a ballot should contact their county elections office. Marion County can be reached at (503) 588-5041 and Polk County at (503) 623-9217.
To produce this story, Salem Reporter interviewed the following officials:
Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess, an elected Democrat
Marion County Elections Supervisor Connie Higgins, an unelected position
Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno, an elected Republican, via email
Andrea Chiapella, legislative and communications director for the Secretary of State, an unelected position
Polk County Chief Elections Clerk Cole Steckley, an unelected position
Have questions about the election? Salem Reporter wants to make sure you get the information you need. Let us know what you’d like to see us cover at [email protected].
• Register to vote online or update your registration HERE.
• Last day to register: Tuesday, Oct. 13
• NOTE: Update your voter registration if you have moved; ballots are not forwarded like other mail.
• Update the mailing address for your ballot if you will be away from home. You can change your mailing address online here.
• Ballots mailed: Wednesday, Oct. 14
• Last day to mail ballot: Tuesday, Oct. 27
• Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 3. Ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. to a drop box or county elections office.
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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.