Steve Bauman, right, and Paul Butler, elections workers, collect ballots from a drop box in Keizer on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Paul Butler and Steve Bauman unlocked the ballot drop box outside Keizer City Hall, they found the bin inside overflowing.

It was just after 9 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22., and they’d last collected ballots at noon the day before.

Typically, election workers empty drop boxes daily in Marion County until the week before the election, when traffic picks up.

But turnout so far this election is so high that Butler and Bauman have been driving some of their ballot box collection routes twice a day.

“This is the highest turnout the first week of a presidential election I’ve seen,” said Conie Higgins, election manager for Marion County, who’s been working local elections for 28 years.

Ballot drop boxes are a key part of Oregon’s vote-by-mail system. Because Oregon only counts ballots received by county clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day, election officials advise using a drop box, not the mail, to return ballots starting Oct. 27 - one week before the Nov. 3 election.

Even before that deadline, many voters opt for the boxes. In the 2016 presidential election, 88,754 Marion County ballots were returned via drop box, compared to just 46,922 by mail and 5,253 dropped off at the clerk’s office.

Because they're accessible to anyone, drop boxes also have to be secure. The slots are thin by design so people can't drop larger items inside, and locked at all times except when they're being emptied. Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said they're rigorously tested for fire, among other dangers. Election workers have even dropped matches inside to ensure they go out before igniting anything inside, he said.

Election workers like Butler and Bauman are the first step in getting the ballots counted.

The pair goes out in a county van loaded with empty ballot boxes. Their 8 a.m. route takes them to drop boxes at the Marion County Health Department building on Center Street, the Hayesville Roth’s, and Keizer City Hall.

Another pair of workers runs routes in south Salem and south Marion County cities.

Outdoor county boxes, like the one at the health department, are metal and unlock at the back. Ballots dropped in the slot fall into a blue plastic bin labeled with the drop box location on the side so the county can always tell which box ballots come from. That helps them track usage and also lets them more easily find a ballot if a voter calls wondering whether theirs has been picked up.

Workers swap the bin out for an empty one, then immediately lock the bin containing the ballots. The key for the padlock is at the county elections office, where a different pair of workers will unlock it.

Indoor drop boxes, like the ones at Roth’s stores around Marion County, are locked and replaced with a new box.

Once they’ve gathered bins from all three sites, the pair returns to the county office in downtown Salem. Then, they drive a route for north Marion County boxes, which includes Silverton and the county public works building. By mid-morning, they’re back at the office and visit the central Salem and Keizer sites again.

Polk County follows a similar process, with workers regularly bringing back locked boxes with ballots, elections clerk Cole Steckley said.

The county will sometimes place multiple boxes at popular locations like grocery stores, he said, and workers empty most boxes daily or every other day depending on how quickly they’re filling up.

Elections worker Steve Bauman collect ballots from a drop box in Keizer on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Back at the Marion County elections office, deputy clerk Patti Butler takes over.

Paired with another election worker, Butler puts clear plastic bins on a table, then lines up mail trays next to the bins.

She unlocks the box, and the pair dumps the ballot envelopes into the bins to sort.

They work in an open room with a half dozen other election workers seated at tables or walking around handling other tasks. That’s by design so the process is transparent and there’s no opportunity for anybody to tamper with ballots or envelopes.

The pair sorts through every ballot in the bin, weeding out anything that doesn’t belong. They’re on the lookout for ballots from other locations, as well as utility bills, speeding tickets and random pieces of paper residents sometimes deposit by mistake.

“Day before yesterday I got three shopping lists,” Butler said.

Ballots from other Oregon counties are stamped with the date received and set aside. The haul on Oct. 22 included ballots from Linn, Polk and Yamhill counties in just one drop box. Butler said that’s common, particularly from West Salem residents who stop by Marion County drop boxes while running errands. Clackamas County ballots are often dropped off at the Woodburn drop site, she said.

Those ballots are forwarded to the appropriate county for processing, but the Marion County time stamp on them is official and means the ballot counts, even if it doesn’t reach the correct county before Election Day.

Butler said they also get ballots from other states. Those are put in the mail in hopes they reach the right elections office in time to be counted. If voters drop in other pieces of mail they might want back, she tries to call them and arrange a return.

Marion County ballot envelopes are lined up facing the same direction in mail trays and stored on shelves to be run through the county’s processing machine, which checks for a matching signature and sorts ballots by precinct.

Dan Brummer, elections support specialist, adds ballots to a sorting machine on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

By law, election workers can’t begin opening envelopes and scanning ballots until one week before the election. That’s Tuesday, Oct. 27. The Marion County office already is busy checking signatures and sorting the envelopes that have come in, but hasn’t yet reached its peak, when more pairs of workers at more tables will remove ballots from envelopes and begin the process of counting votes.

Until then, workers like Butler are getting as many ballots ready to go as they can, checking signatures and filling shelves with mail trays of envelopes ready to be tabulated.

Several tables in the office have election workers whose job is to tap ballot envelopes against the table so the ballot settles toward the top of the envelope. It’s a tedious task, but it ensures the county’s machine which cuts ballot envelopes open at the bottom won’t accidentally slash a ballot.

Correction: This article misstated the day election workers begin opening ballot envelopes. It is Oct. 27, not Oct. 28.

SALEM BALLOT BOX LOCATIONS

All ballot boxes will be accessible until 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3. Regular hours for other days listed below.

 MARION COUNTY (Full list here):

Marion County Clerk, 555 Court St. N.E., Ste 2130 -8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays

Marion County Health, 3180 Center St. N.E. - Curbside (24 hours)

Roth’s Fresh Market, 3045 Commercial St. S.E. -6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Roth’s Fresh Market, 4555 Liberty Rd. S. - 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Roth’s Fresh Market, 4746 Portland Rd. N.E. - 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Marion County Public Works, 5155 Silverton Rd. N.E. - 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

POLK COUNTY (Full list here):

Roth's Fresh Markets, 1130 Wallace Rd. N.W. - 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

TOP 5 VOTING MISTAKES TO AVOID

1. Fill out both sides of your ballot. You don’t have to vote in every race, but make sure you’re not overlooking the back of the ballot - or returning a blank ballot.

2. Don’t forget to sign your ballot envelope on the marked line. 

3. Double-check you’re signing your envelope, not a spouse’s or roommate’s.

4. Don’t return your ballot late. After Oct. 27, ballots should not be mailed. Use a drop box.

5. Don’t ignore mail from the county clerk’s office. If you get a letter or postcard after the election, it’s likely because there was a problem with your signature which you can fix.

TRACK YOUR BALLOT: See when it’s received, processed

MyVote for all Oregon voters

BallotTrax for Marion County voters (requires registration with a phone number or email address)

VOTING QUESTIONS

Marion County clerk - (503) 588-5041

Polk County clerk - (503) 623-9217

ELECTION REPORTS: The voting process

VOTE 2020: Ballots go out this week for Oregon voters. Here's how to make sure yours gets counted.

Signature mismatches and late ballot returns cost about 2,500 Marion and Polk county voters a say in Oregon's 2018 election for governor. We asked elections clerks what you need to know for 2020.

VOTE 2020: Across the political spectrum, Oregon elections officials say mail delays won't affect the election

Marion and Polk county clerks say they're getting more questions ahead of this election as a record number of voters across the U.S. plan to vote by mail. But in Oregon, it's business as usual.

VOTE 2020: Al Davidson helped pioneer mail-in voting. But other states' plans to vote by mail this election worry him 

While vote-by-mail is now popular in Oregon, Davidson said it took years to implement and to convince the public to embrace a practice that faced initial skepticism. Other states don't have the same time. 

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.