Uncounted Oregon votes expose election vulnerability

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Days before last November’s elections, members of a political action committee in Oregon went door-to-door in Portland and its suburbs and collected filled-in ballots from voters, saying they would send them in.

But the committee delivered about 100 of those ballots to an elections office a day after the election. They were not counted, disenfranchising those voters. The secretary of state fined the committee $94,750.

As doubts arise in the nation about security of election systems that can be hacked and about reliance on aging or inadequate voting machines, more attention is being paid to voting by mail. After Oregon pioneered the all-mail vote in 2000, Colorado and Washington state followed suit.

The incident in Oregon exposed a potential election vulnerability. An organization collecting ballots might mishandle ballots, as happened last year, or even dump them to try to sway an election.

No one knows how many groups in Oregon collect ballots to turn in because state government officials in charge of elections don’t track the groups.

News about the Oregon ballots being rejected and the fine on the PAC last month comes as there’s renewed scrutiny of ballot collection efforts. A political operative working on behalf of a GOP candidate in North Carolina was arrested after being accused of illegally collecting mail-in absentee ballots. That November race will be redone.

There is no indication that Oregon’s voter system has been penetrated by fraud by use of go-betweens to collect ballots.

And from the governor on down to county clerks, officials praise a system allowing voters to cast ballots at their leisure through the post office or at official drop boxes because the voters don’t have to leave work on election day or travel long distances to crowded polling stations. They also say the system has the added benefit of leaving a paper trail and presents fewer opportunities for hacking.

But the recent incident showed that state and county election officials in Oregon do not keep records on which groups collect completed ballots from voters, or how often this happens.

“Organizations might keep track but we don’t ask for that information,” said Debra Royal, chief of staff to the secretary of state, Oregon’s top elections official.

A study last year by Northern Illinois University ranked Oregon as the easiest state for voting in the country, analyzing 33 variables dealing with registration and voting laws. In Oregon, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they go to the motor vehicles department for drivers’ licenses, IDs or permits.

The incident last November involved a PAC called Defend Oregon, which was registered with the state elections division last May and works “to protect Oregon from extremist groups with dangerous agendas.”

The group said one of its canvassers removed 97 completed ballots from a lock box on election night, Nov. 6, checked them against a spreadsheet, and put them into a box to be delivered to the elections office or to an official drop box.

But no one delivered them that day. The box was discovered the next day and was driven by Defend Oregon director Becca Uherbelau to the Multnomah County election office in Portland.

“We take this mistake very seriously and sincerely apologize to impacted voters who entrusted us with their ballots,” Uherbelau said in a statement.

She would not say how many ballots the group collected overall or what the group’s motive was for doing so.

The group’s collection effort was legal, as long as the box they used had a sign identifying it as an unofficial ballot drop box, said Tim Scott, director of elections for Multnomah County
After Scott received the 97 ballots late, he notified the secretary of state’s office.

“It was clear that it was a violation of the statutes, and I felt that it was my duty to make sure it was reported to the secretary of state, who has the resources to investigate,” Scott said in a phone interview. The county elections office encourages voters to use official drop sites, he said.

The secretary of state’s office said in its Feb. 12 decision that because the PAC delivered the ballots late “each voter who entrusted Defend Oregon canvassers lost their respective right to have their ballot counted,” adding: “The harm of not having a ballot counted is more severe than any other violation of election law.”

University of Oregon political science professor Priscilla Southwell said if voters have doubts that their ballots were properly delivered by a go-between, they can check the secretary of state website to see if they were received.

“It seems strange that that many people would willingly turn over their ballots,” she said.

BAssociated Press