Cast But Not Counted: Some Oregon VBM Ballots Don’t Make the Final Tally

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[Image via all-flags-world]

Oregon has been a pioneer on numerous fronts in election administration – the first all vote-by-mail state, and more recently the first to embrace automatic voter registration – but a recent story in the Bend Bulletin shows that even pioneers must deal with ballots that don’t count:

One vote. Or, more specifically, one valid vote.

That’s all it would have taken to avoid a tie between a Republican and a Democrat seeking the Independent Party nomination for an Oregon House seat.

It turns out, there were at least two more Independent Party votes out there, but they didn’t count.

Instead, the battle for the Independent Party nomination for House District 30, one of the few remaining contested or “swing” districts in Oregon, instead came down to a literal roll of the dice Friday. Republican Dan Mason won when he rolled a six.

According to a review by The Bulletin, the two Independent Party voters within the district in Washington County cast ballots, but they were rejected, although whether either would have avoided the tie is unknown. One didn’t sign the ballot. The other’s signature didn’t match the one elections officials had on file. Neither fixed the issue.

They were among the thousands of voters across the state who tried and failed to cast ballots during the May 17 primary, which included the presidential primaries. Their votes weren’t counted for one of several reasons, highlighting one of the largely unseen issues with voting by mail in Oregon.

Ballots can be invalid for various reasons – some fixable, some not – and statewide they can add up:

Of the ballots that weren’t counted initially — an exact number is difficult because counties invalidate votes for different reasons — county elections officials and voters resolved over 9,200 of the problematic ballots in the two-week period after Election Day that state law allows voters to fix ballots that come in on time but have an issue…

Not all county clerks who administer the state’s elections track the rate at which they face and fix problems with mail-in ballots. The Bulletin collected the information from Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins and has sifted through the information from the Oregon Centralized Voter Registration system.

It’s not clear how many races throughout Oregon could have been affected if all contested ballots were counted.

After Election Day, 1,405 ballots in Deschutes County didn’t count, according to the review. Of those, 350 weren’t counted because they weren’t received before the 8 p.m. deadline May 17.

About a third, or 346, of Deschutes County voters with problem ballots fixed their issues to make sure their votes were counted. Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment …

Crook County had 21 problematic ballots after Election Day, and voters resolved six of them.

Counties do their best to resolve issues when they can, but even election offices admit they don’t have the wherewithal to chase down every problem:

When the county can’t match up a voter’s signature, or if voters neglect to sign their ballots, the county sends a letter notifying the voter of a problem. Elections Deputy Barbara Pennington, who along with Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely helps run elections and solve ballot issues, said the county can’t put more resources into tracking down voters and fixing problems.

Jefferson County was the best in Central Oregon to resolve ballot issues, according to the review. Of the 112 ballots that weren’t counted on Election Day, 23 weren’t counted because they were sent after the May 17 cutoff. Of the 89 ballots that were fixable, 61 were resolved and counted.

Jefferson County Clerk Kathy Marston didn’t respond to a request for comment on her process for contacting voters and fixing issues with their ballots.

Mickie Kawai, elections division manager in Washington County, said she was open to looking at any options that would improve the process to make sure as many valid votes as possible are counted. Washington County resolved just under a quarter of the ballots.

“I’m not going to discount anything,” Kawai said. “If it helps, maybe we should be looking at those tools.”

Step one in the process is almost certainly collecting data to get a handle on the source of invalid ballots, especially those that are curable, and then tailoring forms and procedures – and then tailoring outreach accordingly. In recent years, neighboring election officials to the south in California have used information about common errors to develop and promote tips to ensure a successful ballot, including mailing on time, remembering to sign and using a matchable signature.

Taking these steps won’t eliminate all invalid ballots but it will help better identify where the process isn’t working – and allow officials and voters to work together to reduce ballot problems that take time and effort to resolve if they can be resolved at all.

Obviously, this isn’t specific to Oregon; every jurisdiction that struggles with problem ballots (i.e., all of them) should take note.

I’ll be curious to see if there’s any followup here … stay tuned!

11 Comments on "Cast But Not Counted: Some Oregon VBM Ballots Don’t Make the Final Tally"

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