Report: Oregon’s counties need help for election workers

Dirkpeeters vlaamsparlement

Officials in Oregon’s 36 counties conduct elections, but a new report heard by state legislators details inadequate budgets, static or declining staffing and public demands that together imperil one of the most basic functions of democracy.

The report was commissioned by the Oregon Elections Division, in cooperation with the Oregon Association of County Clerks, and presented Tuesday, Nov. 7, at a meeting of the House Rules Committee in Salem.

Chairwoman Julie Fahey, a Democrat from Eugene and the House majority leader, said afterward that the report was a first step toward legislation and other recommendations for the Legislature’s next long session starting in January 2025.

“We are only three months away (Feb. 5) from the short session, so it seems unlikely we would take up major election legislation in an election year,” Fahey said. “But we want to open a dialogue about what the researchers found and what the implications are at the county and state levels.”

As secretary of state, LaVonne Griffin-Valade is the state’s chief elections officer. She called the report “grim,” primarily because of increased pressure on election workers in the form of “threats, abuse and harassment, largely stemming from the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen.”

“We hope this report will shed some light on the many obstacles our local election officials face,” she added. Griffin-Valade is an appointee who is not seeking election in 2024.

Voters in most of Oregon’s counties — including Clackamas County — elect county clerks, whose responsibilities in addition to elections can range from recording real estate transactions to issuing marriage licenses. A few of the most populous counties, including Multnomah and Washington, have separate elections offices that are part of other agencies.

The report was prepared by the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College and based on interviews with elections officials in 34 counties and their staffs between December 2022 and March of this year.

The report notes that since the contentious presidential election of 2020, when Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican incumbent Donald Trump — who is running again — about a third of Oregon’s top county elections officials have retired or resigned. The most recent was Polk County’s Val Unger, who retired in October after 20 years.

Mickie Kawai retired in mid-2022 after working 35 years in the Washington County Elections Division. Sherry Hall was ousted by voters in 2022 after 20 years as Clackamas County clerk, marred by a series of errors. Tim Scott has led Multnomah County Elections since 2008 and is the immediate past president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks.

Oregon leads

Oregon was the first state to use mail ballots for all elections (2000) and was the first state to register voters automatically based on driver and vehicle records (2015). It also is consistently in the top 10 states in participation by eligible voters. The report said those changes are well understood by elections officials, voters and others.

But the report also says:

“Politics in Oregon has become increasingly polarized, mirroring the national polarization. Economic change and disruption meant that some areas of the state have grown and thrived while others have seen a decline in local revenue streams. This has been more pronounced for those counties who traditionally relied on timber and other natural resources. And change — always a constant in the elections space — seems to be even more rapid and unpredictable.”

Paul Manson, the report’s lead author, is research director for the Reed College center and an adjunct research professor at the Center for Public Service at Portland State University.

“The cloud over all of this is the political environment or its perceptions,“ Manson said. “This abusive and threatening environment continues to be a concern.”

He said some inquiries and demands by self-appointed individuals and groups on county elections officials have little to do with Oregon itself, such as polling places. Except for a few voting stations at county elections offices, Oregon discontinued polling places after the November 1998 election, when voters extended the use of mail ballots to all primary and general elections.

Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College and founder of the elections center, said budgets, staffing and training pose other problems. Most counties rely on their general funds for elections, and in addition to public pressures, there is no ready employment pipeline that leads to elections staffing. He said that in some counties, the recording functions of clerk’s offices attract people from real estate, and some manage the transition into elections. Those jobs require less clerical work, because of technological advances, but more interaction with the public.

The report proposes consideration of state aid or other sources to complement county budgets, standardized forms and procedures for public-records requests, and a more uniform training program, possibly between the secretary of state and the Oregon Association of County Clerks. The report recommends a liaison with the counties based in the state Elections Division. (District attorneys in Oregon’s 36 counties — who are considered state officials because the state pays part of their salaries — can get assistance from a unit within the Oregon Department of Justice.)

“Training is not just about learning skills,” Gronke told the committee. “It’s about building an informal communications network among clerks. These informal networks are ways that clerks share their experiences and support one another.”

County clerks speak out

Clerks from Harney and Baker counties also spoke at the meeting.

“Elections are critical infrastructure,” Derrin “Dag” Robinson of Harney County said. “And I feel that in Oregon, we need to treat them as such.”

County clerks as a group did not stand in the way when the 2023 Legislature referred a measure that would institute ranked-choice voting in Oregon if voters approve it in November 2024. It would start in 2028 and is optional for cities and counties. Benton County and Corvallis are using it now, Portland will use it starting with the 2024 city elections, and Multnomah County in 2026.

“But we do not feel we have the infrastructure to support that yet,” Robinson said.

Baker County Clerk Stefanie Kirby said funding, staffing and security are her main concerns about elections.

Link to Reed College/Elections & Voting Information Center report on county elections:


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