Oregon county election offices will get help paying for postmark scanners, other equipment

This is the first year ballots dropped in the mail by Election Day will be counted

By: - March 16, 2022 5:50 am

Nonaffiliated voters comprise the biggest bloc in Oregon. (Motoya Nakamura/Multnomah County)

County election offices will soon get additional money to replace old election equipment and buy postal barcode scanners to comply with a recent law requiring that ballots dropped in the mail on Election Day be counted. 

In 2021, Oregon legislators allocated $2 million for Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to distribute to counties for election equipment, such as ballot tabulators and postmark scanners, or to add ballot drop boxes and upgrade video surveillance. That money went unspent, and this year election officials asked the Legislature to change what the money could be used for.

When the money was allocated last year, state election officials were under the impression that many counties needed new tabulation machines, said Molly Woon, senior adviser and strategic projects director in the secretary of state’s office. They found that only one county needed such equipment, and started talking to the Oregon Association of County Clerks about better uses for the money. 

A little more than half of the available money will be used for postal barcode scanners and other equipment, and Woon expects to announce grants to counties next week. 

Dan Lonai, Umatilla County’s director of administrative services and president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. The association’s vice president, Multnomah County elections director Tim Scott, said he expects more money to go to counties that lacked funding to upgrade equipment. 

Multnomah County, the state’s largest, got grants in 2020 to automate more of its system and replaced its ballot tabulators just a few years ago, so it’s in good shape for the upcoming primary and general elections, he said. 

“Some counties were able to get a significant portion of grant funding to do things like upgrade their tally systems or buy a high-speed mail sorter, and other counties just weren’t able to,” he said.  “It’s really just trying to take a holistic look at the counties and seeing who needs what, and then from there trying to address those deficiencies.”

The secretary of state’s office will get $370,000 to spend on public service announcements, tracking and responding to election misinformation and statewide ballot tracking, which legislative budget analysts said were cheaper if provided by the state than by individual counties. 

Another $470,000 will be held for emergencies, with any remaining money split equally among counties at the end of the two-year budget cycle in June 2023. 

This is the first year in which ballots will be counted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and arrive at election offices within the next week. Previously, mailed ballots had to be received by clerks by Election Day, meaning they typically had to be mailed several days earlier. Counties that have already conducted elections this year found that the change in election policy means more work and a longer wait for final results. 

A Jan. 18 recall election for two school board members in Yamhill County was the first to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day. About 500 ballots arrived during the week after the election, and county election office employees had to look for postmarks on each envelope to establish the date they were mailed.

Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen estimates that verifying postmarks will take about a half-day of work for an employee during the first few days after an election. Yamhill County hasn’t been using machines to check for postmarks. 

That’s on top of the other work that must be done before a ballot can be counted. Election workers also check voters’ signatures against voter registration records and contact voters if the signature is missing or doesn’t match. 

About 14,500 people voted in the January recall election, less than a quarter of the roughly 59,500 who voted in Yamhill County in the general election in November 2020.

If the rate of postmarked ballots stays consistent in November, Yamhill County could have more than 2,000 ballots arrive after Election Day. Multnomah County, which had nearly 470,000 voters in its last election, could have to process more than 16,000 late-arriving ballots. 

Van Bergen said he’s waiting for more information about how much money counties can receive and how they can use it. The county’s election building, built in 1935, needs well over $100,000 in accessibility and security improvements, he said. 

For one thing, the front doors to the building are only accessible by concrete steps. There’s a ramp to the back door, but that’s where ballots are brought in. Either building a ramp in the front or adding security measures in the back could improve accessibility for voters who can’t easily navigate steps, he said. 

The county also has technological security concerns, he said, though he didn’t want to describe those. 

“I know the options are wide, that they’re not terribly focused on a particular type of improvement,” Van Bergen said. “But what I don’t know is if we are going to see $10 or $10,000.” 

Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely said she’s waiting to see how the primary goes and what effect postmarked ballots will have.

“We’ll kind of have to see after one election how that works out,” she said. “We may find there is a need for a lot more of something, I don’t know yet. It’s kind of a hard one for me to project.”

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.