Is Oregon’s vote-by-mail in trouble? Top state officials disagree

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Aug. 20, 2020 6:55 p.m.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum have offered sharply different takes about what Postal Service delays might mean.

With confusion swirling about the viability of voting by mail this year, two of Oregon’s highest-ranking executives have offered starkly different takes about the state’s likely fate.

In recent days, serious concerns have come to light about changes and resource reductions in the United States Postal Service, which could potentially hamper mail-in voting just as the COVID-19 pandemic is set to make vote-by-mail far more common nationwide. But Oregonians hoping for clarity about what this all means for their state’s well-oiled vote-by-mail system aren’t likely to get it from Secretary of State Bev Clarno and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno has assured voters that November's general election will be no different than May's successful primary. Others aren't convinced.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Clarno, a Republican who oversees elections and has been a defender of the state’s first-in-the-nation system, has sought to ensure Oregonians their votes are in good hands.

Two weeks after she received a letter from USPS general counsel Thomas Marshall warning of longer-than-normal delivery times for ballots, Clarno released a statement touting Oregon’s “two decades of experience with our local contacts at the United States Postal Service.”

“We will of course continue to work with them and monitor any potential impact to both the mailing out of ballots to voters and the return of ballots,” the secretary of state said in the statement last week. “We at the state level are meeting with our USPS partners to ensure we are ready for November. The USPS recognizes that Oregon leads the nation with Vote by Mail and that we are using the latest USPS technology to streamline the process.”

Rosenblum, a Democrat, is not so sanguine.

On Tuesday, she was one of 14 attorneys general to sign onto a lawsuit against President Donald Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over proposed cuts and resource adjustments. The states say these changes are illegal and will hamper their ability to conduct elections by mail.

Oregon’s attorney general, looking at the same USPS letter that Clarno addressed, came away with a far different conclusion.

“The shorter timeframes outlined in Mr. Marshall’s letter are likely to result in materially lower voter turnout in Oregon’s election, and a materially higher number of ballots that must be disregarded because they are returned too late,” lawyers for Oregon and other states wrote in the suit.

DeJoy, the postmaster general, has now bowed to mounting pressure about a series of cost-cutting changes he had been pursuing. He announced Tuesday he would hold off on reducing post office hours, closing processing facilities, forbidding overtime for postal workers and removing sorting machines and blue USPS mail collection boxes.

But it’s not clear what impact, if any, that decision has on the concerns Rosenblum raised about the July 31 USPS letter to Clarno. One Portland USPS shop steward told OPB recently that “the damage has already been done” from past resource reductions.

It’s also not clear that Rosenblum’s concerns will come to pass. State and county elections officials say they have faith in the Postal Service, and currently appear to have few plans to dramatically alter course from past elections.

“I don’t want to go overboard in causing people to be more concerned than they should be,” Rosenblum said Wednesday. “But I think it’s important that Oregonians realize that they shouldn’t delay. If they’re going to mail it, they should mail it within the first couple of days.”

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum waits for the start of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's inaugural address at the state Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has argued that delays by the United States Postal Service could slash voter participation in this November's election.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

At issue are new timing guidelines that the USPS has offered Oregon voters and elected officials.

In his letter, Marshall offered assurances that under Oregon’s laws, “it appears that your voters should have sufficient time to receive, complete, and return their ballots.”

That’s a more sunny outlook than Marshall offered some other states.

But the letter also made clear that blank ballots sent out by counties could take up to a week to reach voters if elections officials send those ballots out by first-class mail, which has typically taken between one and three days to arrive. If elections officials send ballots as cheaper business mail, the letter said, it will take longer.

Under the state’s election schedule, ballots for the Nov. 3 election will be mailed to in-state voters beginning on Oct. 14. But elections officials can send ballots until Oct. 20 — or even later in the case of voters who make last minute registration changes.


Completed ballots, which are always sent as first-class mail, also face the same potential week-long lag. That’s prompting Marshall to recommend all ballots be mailed by Oct. 27, one week before the Nov. 3 election.

An elections worker sorts ballot secrecy sleeves from counted ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, May 15, 2020. Elections offices around the state have taken precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while processing ballots.

An elections worker sorts ballot secrecy sleeves from counted ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland on Wednesday, May 15, 2020. Elections offices around the state have taken precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while processing ballots.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

State and county elections officials have typically recommended that voters mail their ballots by five or six days prior to an election to ensure they arrive in time. Otherwise, voters are advised to turn in ballots at a designated drop point.

Clarno suggested Wednesday that the state’s official advice is not changing.

“We are grateful the USPS has announced that there will be no postal service changes until after the November election,” Clarno said in a statement. “Oregon voters can rest assured that their ballots will be mailed to them and they will have the same return options and timelines as they had in the May Primary.”

Multnomah County’s election office, meanwhile, plans to recommend voters drop their ballots in the mail at least a week in advance, in line with the USPS letter, county elections director Tim Scott said. The county typically advises voters to mail ballots by the Thursday preceding a Tuesday election.

Inquiries to elections offices in other counties weren’t returned.

For Rosenblum, the question of when voters receive their blank ballots is more pressing than when they must mail them in.

If ballots take a week to reach voters, Rosenblum pointed out, that means they would likely have less time than normal to complete their ballots before mailing them off by the USPS-recommended Oct. 27 guidelines.

“Oregon voters may have to return their ballots by mail on the same day the ballots arrive, if elections officials require the full time allotted to them to complete production of the ballots and prepare to mail them,” the lawsuit says. “If elections officials can send the ballot at the earliest day generally allowed by state law, voters may still have only six days.”

As Rosenblum suggested, those timelines could be far different if counties aren’t using first-class mail to send blank ballots. Many use cheaper — less swift — business mail to send the majority of their ballots. Multnomah County, for instance, only switches to first-class mail in the final days before an election, when it’s rushing to get ballots to voters who have made late registration changes.

Sending ballots out via business mail, according to the USPS, “will increase the risk that voters will not receive their ballots in time to return them by mail.”

But Scott, at least, has no plans to change Multnomah County’s mailing practices. He and Clarno both pointed out that the state has worked with local postal officials for decades. The USPS has shown a commitment to prioritizing ballots, they say.

“In the [May] primary we had ballots in homes the next day in most cases,” Scott said. “And usually it’s a three-day window.”

Things might have changed since those ballots were sent, Scott conceded, but he said Multnomah County saw no big differences in mail times during a special election in the city of Portland earlier this month.

That election did raise concerns when it was reported that some voters received their ballots on the day of the election, meaning they’d have no choice but to use a drop box if they wanted to vote. Scott said that was a result of two factors: election officials sending “Hail Mary” ballots to voters who’d made extremely late changes to their voter registrations, and mistakenly mailing the ballots using the slower business rate.

“That happens every election,” Scott said, of voters receiving ballots on Election Day. “It just got noticed this time.”

Asked about her claim that more Oregon voters might be disenfranchised this election, Rosenblum acknowledged she didn’t know what will actually play out. She is hopeful that DeJoy’s capitulations on Tuesday will speed up the timelines the USPS has set. Whether or not that is the case is a question likely to be pressed by congressional Democrats when DeJoy appears before House and Senate committees in coming days.

“This is a lawsuit,” Rosenblum said. “We’re trying to really get in the weeds of some of the details that could really make a difference. … We want to ensure that the post office and the postmaster general are held accountable.”

Just in case, Rosenblum — like Gov. Kate Brown, former President Barack Obama, and a sea of other public figures — is urging people to fill out and mail their ballots as soon as possible when they arrive. But she also points out that concerns about mail timing are moot for a large segment of Oregon voters, who opt to deposit their ballots in collection boxes throughout the state.

Those drop boxes will still be there this year, meaning — regardless what travails the USPS is experiencing on Nov. 3 — voters can still hand a ballot in by 8 p.m. on Election Day to have it count.

That’s what Rosenblum plans to do.

“I never put my ballot in the mail,” she said.