A Multnomah County election worker sorts ballots on Oct. 22, 2020. (Motoya Nakamura/Multnomah County)
A week before this November’s Linn County special election over a tax increase to fund law enforcement, a man walked into the election office and asked to see the county clerk.
Steve Druckenmiller walked over and asked how he could help, but the man didn’t want assistance.
“I just wanted to see the enemy of my country and the enemy of my God,” Druckenmiller recalled him saying. “And then he started talking in tongues.”
Druckenmiller heard the man out, then asked him to leave.
It was the first in a series of encounters this election cycle with voters who were supposed to drop off their ballots or fix mismatched signatures on ballot envelopes but instead wanted to criticize Druckenmiller for how his office ran an election a year ago.
“This last election, he was the first one, and then on Election Day, I had people come in and they wanted to argue about everything,” Druckenmiller said. “I don’t mind if they want to talk to me like that, but some of these people start with my staff.”
It’s been just over a year since more than 159 million Americans, and more than 2.4 million Oregonians, cast their ballots in the 2020 general election and elected Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. In the intervening months, Oregon election officials have run elections for school boards, new local taxes and other ballot propositions.
But, at least in some counties, they haven’t been able to stop answering questions about the 2020 election. County clerks from around the state, who are elected, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle that their past year has been brutal and exhausting. They normally spend most of their time overseeing recordings of documents such as deeds and mortgages.
One is rethinking her decision not to retire. Several have had death threats. And Republicans who hold the nonpartisan office are frustrated that their party continues to cast doubt on the 2020 election.
Three Oregon legislators signed an open letter this fall calling for “audits” of the 2020 election in all 50 states and asking to scrub voter rolls, joining lawmakers from around the country. Another sent Secretary of State Shemia Fagan a letter requesting a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election.
“The state Republican Party is misguided,” Druckenmiller said. “What’s really sad about it, though, is that they’re so focused on these past issues that they’re never going to be able to do anything about that they’re not really being relevant.”Election officials field threats, criticism
Three weeks after the 2020 election, Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker arrived at work to find the phrase “VOTE DONT WORK. NEXT TIME BULLETS” painted in 6-foot-tall white letters over the parking lot across from her office.
She reported it to the FBI, the federal Department of Homeland Security, the sheriff and the Secretary of State’s office at the time, but she didn’t want to publicize it because she worried public attention would lead to copycats moving from vandalism to violence.
A year later, the parking lot across the street is clean but Walker and the one other employee in her office still field regular rants and threats from people who could be their neighbors or who live hundreds of miles away. Druckenmiller in Linn County has started Googling some of the people who send him emails – one of the most foul came from a Maryland real estate agent who looked professional on his website.
“Even just last week, I had a caller with expletives, F bombs, going off about how I was one of them because I’m an election official, and that vote-by-mail doesn’t work and it’s criminal and fraudulent and we’re all criminal and fraudulent,” Walker said. “‘We’re coming to get you,’ things like that.”
Walker said she has received many more records requests than she usually does, and she believes they’re mostly from out-of-state people who found on some platform a guide listing things to request. They’re usually so extensive that she wouldn’t know where to begin, so now she just forwards those requests to the county’s lawyer.
People have asked Walker and other county clerks to turn over spreadsheets with every voter’s home address, share “forensic images” of hard drives they use to store data and make last year’s ballots and envelopes available for anyone to inspect. Under federal law, ballots and signed ballot envelopes must be stored for 22 months after a federal election, and anyone who tampers with sealed ballot boxes without a court order faces up to a year in prison.
“We’re just trying to do our job,” Walker said. “We’re trying to make sure that every qualified voter has access to a ballot and then do our job. To be treated like you’re a criminal or fraudulent, it’s really disturbing.”
After the past year, Polk County Clerk Val Unger is considering retiring earlier than she planned, she said in an email. Unger has worked for the clerk’s office for more than 30 years, starting as a temporary employee in 1990 before becoming the county’s elections supervisor three years later and taking over as clerk in 2002.
“Frankly, the last year and a half has been brutal and nothing like I’ve ever experienced in the over 30 years I’ve been here,” Unger wrote. “This year, we have been inundated with public records requests and repeated calls and emails for forensic audits, a term we had never even heard of before.”
Those inquiries come in waves, Unger said. After a group posts a video or holds an event on election fraud, such as an August symposium hosted by the MyPillow CEO who helped bankroll an Arizona ballot review, Polk County receives more calls and emails from people with demands for records.
Unger said her office takes every accusation seriously. She’s even made scanned ballot images from the November 2020 election available to anyone who will pony up $30 for a thumb drive – two people have taken her up on that offer.
“But no matter what we say or provide, many still choose to believe that fraud exists,” she said.
People who still question the 2020 election results have found champions in some Oregon legislators. This fall, state Sens. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, as well as state Rep. Lily Morgan, signed a letter spearheaded by a group of Arizona politicians calling for Arizona-style audits in all 50 states.
That state’s troubled ballot review, run by a small Florida cybersecurity firm, Cyber Ninjas, with no election experience, didn’t provide the smoking gun that supporters who paid the $9 million price tag wanted. Instead, the volunteers who hand-counted ballots on color-coded spinning tables for most of the spring learned the same thing they could have learned last November: Biden won more votes than Trump in Arizona’s most populous county.
That didn’t stop representatives from around the country from joining in calls to repeat the experiment in their own states. Top figures from Arizona’s ballot review have become celebrities in some circles and have traveled the country – Arizona Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward joined the Lane County GOP for a $50-a-plate fundraising luncheon in September to spread the audit gospel.
Linthicum and Thatcher, who ran for secretary of state in 2020, did not respond to emails or phone calls. Morgan shared a portion of her correspondence with a constituent to explain her reasoning for signing the letter, saying that she believed an audit would cause no harm and that Oregon has “one of the best and most secure voting processes in the country.”
“I’m not afraid of the outcome and I’m not afraid to ask for the audit,” Morgan said. “It’s not about overturning a result; it’s about affirming the information. Even in the results out of Arizona, the election was affirmed, not overturned.”
She compared “scrubbing” voter rolls to the process the state follows to renew and update information for state-issued licenses. Currently, the state moves voters to an “inactive” status if a mailed ballot or other election-related mail is returned as undeliverable or if the voter hasn’t voted in the past 10 years. Unlike other mail, ballots cannot be forwarded.
Inactive voters won’t receive ballots in the mail, but they can be moved back to an active status if they update their voter registration or if their county learns about their new address through the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Division or a change-of-address form filed with the US Postal Service.
In a separate letter shared by the Oregon Republican Party, state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, asked Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to conduct a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election.
“Voters across Oregon continue to hear news story after news story about potential voter fraud, missteps, irregularities, multiple voters and more,” Breese-Iverson wrote. “My office has received hundreds of emails and voicemails from voters across the state with regard to voter fraud on some level.”
A local newspaper in eastern Oregon reported in early November that state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, told constituents at an Ontario town hall meeting that Oregon wouldn’t have election integrity.
In a brief phone call, Findley told the Oregon Capital Chronicle that the local paper misreported his comments, and that he actually said Oregon won’t have issues with election integrity. He said he told constituents in Ontario the same thing he tells anyone who asks: Oregon’s county clerks are the best in the country and he has full faith in them.
“I’ve held five town halls in the last two weeks, and every time that question comes up, I say the same thing,” Findley said. “I believe in the county clerk process. I believe in how they do it. I encourage anyone that has a concern to go visit with their county clerks and watch them do their work.”An ‘extraordinary circumstance’
National figures on fringe social media platforms and media organizations that cater to the far right have also encouraged skepticism of the 2020 election.
In Linn County, Druckenmiller and his staff of nine first experienced a flood of emails and phone calls after a man named Seth Keshel, who identifies himself as a former Army intelligence officer, posted on the messaging app Telegram that Linn County was one of four Oregon counties where he suspected fraud.
Druckenmiller, 72, didn’t understand at first the platform used for the message. He has a Facebook page solely because his daughter asked him to make one so she could share pictures of his grandchildren, but otherwise he doesn’t touch social media.
Linn County is solidly red: more than 60% of voters went for Donald Trump in 2020. And it’s small enough that even if Trump won every single one of the more than 72,000 votes cast in 2020, it wouldn’t have made a difference in either Oregon or the national popular vote.
Keshel, who presents himself as an election expert, claims that Trump actually won the popular vote but a network of corrupt or incompetent election officials approved fradulent votes for Biden. In Linn County, he was suspicious of voter registration growth between 2016 and 2020 that wasn’t accompanied by a large population growth, and by Biden improving on 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s vote share by 5 points.
There are simple explanations for both, Druckenmiller said. Linn County had long struggled with low voter registration rates, but now every resident who obtains or renews a driver’s license is automatically registered to vote. The first-in-the-nation law took effect at the beginning of 2016, but it will take until the end of 2023 to automatically register all Oregon voters because driver’s licenses are valid for eight years.
Secondly, Clinton was uniquely unpopular with Linn County’s blue-collar voters, even those who would normally vote for Democrats. In 2016, the county had an unusually high number of write-in votes from people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either candidate, Druckenmiller said.
Now that his county’s special election is over, Druckenmiller said he expects to spend much of the rest of the year responding to more emails or letters about the 2020 election that are even halfway civil.
Across the state, other county clerks say unrest over the 2020 election has added to their duties. They’re spending more time than they used to inviting voters to tour election facilities and explaining their processes and the laws they follow.
In Prineville, Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely said she has a few regulars who email her or stop in the office when they want to clarify something they heard. When it comes to local voters, she’s able to assuage concerns.
“Most of the citizens really don’t understand the Oregon election process, and so when we’re able to explain or even show them our process, it clarifies a lot,” Seely said. “I’m all for that. I’m a citizen, and I’m a voter too, and I have the same concerns about election integrity as everybody else, so I want to make sure that everybody is comfortable with what I’m doing because I’m comfortable with it.”
Election officials in Oregon’s largest county haven’t received threats, said Tim Scott, Multnomah County’s elections director. They have received persistent, sometimes agitated, phone calls and emails from people questioning the 2020 election on a scale the county hasn’t experienced before.
There are always some theories or questions after an election, Scott said. For instance, after former Gov. John Kitzhaber beat former NBA player Chris Dudley in the 2010 gubernatorial, Scott remembers suspicion over how the vote count massively shifted in Kitzhaber’s favor the evening after the election. It wasn’t anything nefarious: Multnomah County just took longer to count votes than the less populous counties that favored Dudley.
In the past, Scott said election workers were able to answer questions and set voters’ or candidates’ minds at ease. That hasn’t worked this year.
“What’s happening now is a very extraordinary circumstance where people with large followings and large platforms are continuing to perpetuate false narratives about what happened or could have happened and just keep continuing to push that narrative even after it’s been disproven,” he said.
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.
STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter's news team: [email protected]