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Dollinger: Ballots safe and secure, even in troubled times


Television announcer: “We interrupt this pandemic to bring you an election.”

As if 2020 were not already loaded with drama, we now have a major national election underway.

Ken Dollinger moved to McMinnville in 1990 with his wife, Linda, and they soon became active in community life. Since their 2007 retirement, they have worked as election processors for the county clerk’s office. This will be their fourth presidential election on the job. Ken launched a communications career in 1964 as a 19-year-old reporter and photographer for a Texas daily. A Navy veteran, he enjoys fishing, kayaking, boating, snorkeling — anything to do with water. Another joy is forested property the family owns in Klamath County, dubbed the South 40.


Such political events always carry the potential for the unexpected, and this year, it's the real threat of COVID-19 infection combined with the expressed opinion of voting fraud. Thus, both voter safety and election security are hot subjects in the news, and serious concerns for most citizens.

Complicating the issue are the conflicting views held by the public of in-person and vote-by-mail methods. Many states are scrambling to shift from standard in-person voting to a combined form of in-person and vote-by-mail, often relying, at least in part, on burgeoning absentee balloting.

Unfortunately, as a result, both accurate counting and timely results are uncertain in some areas of the country.   

Happily, a few states already have an established ballot system well equipped to keep voters safe and the election secure. And Oregon is one of them.

Oregon switched to statewide vote-by-mail in 1998, following a successful test drive in 1996. Four other states — Washington, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — are now employing similar vote-by-mail systems.

Oregon’s 22-year record proves that its election system is controlled, easy, safe, secure and timely — essentially, foolproof.

At its root, voting in America is very simple. Citizens register, obtain a ballot, mark choices and submit the ballot for processing to produce an official result.

The reality is anything but simple in Oregon counties such as Yamhill, though. A great deal of planning, preparation and problem-solving is required, starting long before the election period. That includes servicing and testing equipment.

The actual processing of ballots involves a lot of people in well-coordinated and supervised action. And after the election is “over,” more time and effort go into effectively wrapping up and winding down. 

The entire process is closely watched by the State of Oregon.

According to Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen, carefully followed procedures perfected over the years ensure that voters can cast a ballot with confidence.

“We have well-trained and dependable people, along with proven technology and multiple safeguards, that simply get the job done correctly and on time,” he said.

“The May primary election was the usual successful event, but also proved that even with COVID-19 workplace changes, the process and people function effectively. While there are more changes, such as shift working, to keep workers safe, I do not expect any difficulties for the general election.”

Van Bergen itemized the steps that occur in an election, noting that in Oregon, the aim is to make voting is as easy as possible.  “We do a lot of work for people without them realizing it,” he said.

Voter registration takes place either when individuals request, complete and return a voter registration form to the county clerk’s office, or during a “qualifying event,” such as driver’s license application or auto registration with Oregon's Division of Motor Vehicles. The latter stems from the “motor voter law" recently enacted by the Legislature.

Van Bergen pointed out that voters are in complete control over being registered or not, as well as over choosing a party affiliation or remaining non-affiliated.

What's more, address changes may be made at any time up to the state-mandated registration cutoff prior to an election. This year, that was Oct. 21.

About a week before general ballots are mailed, the state mails one national and state candidates and issues guide — including a section itemizing local ballot items, provided by the county — to every Oregon mailing address.

Ballot mailing is carried out in three stages.

Ballots for Oregonians currently serving in the military or residing overseas are mailed 46 days before election day. Ballots for college students, snowbirds and other Oregonians currently residing out of state are mailed 29 days before election day. The rest of the Oregon ballots — which feature, by necessity, a different version for each community or precinct — go into the mail 20 days before election day.

Ballots may be returned to the county clerk’s office in three ways. They may be dropped off at one of the 15 official ballot boxes around the county, returned by mail or delivered ine person. Due to COVID restrictions, a dropbox has been installed at the front steps of the clerk's office so voters choosing the in-person option do not need to actually enter. And none of these methods require postage.

Pairs of “ballot rangers” collect ballots from the dropboxes and the post office, and deliver them directly to the clerk’s office. They are sanitized with ultaviolet light and identified by source — dropbox or post office.

Still unopened, ballots are bar-code scanned and signature-verified by teams of workers. Those raising signature issues are diverted to senior staff for action.

Valid signature ballots move on to a machine that slits open the outside envelopes. They then proceed to teams of workers for processing.

The ballots are electronically, mechanically and human-counted, and the three counts are recorded by ballot source.

Workers now remove the ballots from the outside envelope. Ballots are stacked to one side, envelopes to the other side.  Before ballots are unfolded, the envelopes are banded and placed in storage.

Ballots are now unfolded and quick-checked for any obvious problems, such as tears, substance contamination or  obscured bar code. 

Ballots requiring human attention — including the keystroke recording of write-in choice — are dealt with by workers, then loaded for electronic scanning. The rest are fed directly into the scanning process.

The scanned results are collected by computer. They are now ready for counting.

These processes begin two weeks before election day, and continue until every ballot received by 8 p.m. election night has been processed. But the computer does not actually begin counting scanned ballots until the 8 p.m. deadline for submission has been reached.

Following the election, the secretary of state's office routinely requires each county to conduct recounts of races and types of ballots chosen randomly to check the accuracy of each county’s process. Finally, all ballots, outside envelopes and forms used are stored and kept for at least two years.

Van Bergen refutes all claims that election fraud is easy. “Every effort is made to prevent bad actors from interfering with any election,” he promised.

Registration to vote requires a valid driver’s license or social security account, and thoise are checked.

Deaths and address changes, even if not reported to the clerk’s office, are discovered by frequent comparison of records from various county, state, and federal sources, including the Social Security Administration and US Postal Service.

Voters whose signature on the outside envelope doesn't seem to match are contacted and given time to correct the issue.  Envelopes must be signed by the person the ballot was meant for, and the signature must match that person's voter registration form.

In the May primary, only 14 Yamhill County voters declined to correct signature issues. These ballots were recorded as received, but were not opened and counted.

No election worker has the opportunity to determine how any particular person voted.

The fact that you did vote in an election is recorded. However, how you voted is not.

Election personnel always work in teams of two, with opposing party affiliations. No single worker ever has access to any ballots.

No worker is allowed access to any pen or pencil other than one that is red in color. Erasers and all other means of changing ballots are also prohibited.

“Yamhill residents should be confident that the county and the state are zealously protecting your voting rights,” Van Bergen said.

Anyone with questions or concerns is invited to check the dozen pages of information in Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet, or contact the local clerk’s office at 503-434-7518.

Van Bergen said, “I particularly want to see voters get accurate information and so avoid misinformation and rumor. It is important that voters understand and are confident that Oregon’s vote-by-mail system is efficient, accurate and secure — and remains so even in difficult times."



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