As COVID-19 forces dramatic election changes in states around the country, Oregon’s experience has been far more subdued.
After 20 years sending out all ballots by mail, state officials have stressed time and again that 2020 should not pose any stark disruptions — a claim bolstered by a flood of returned ballots in the last week.
But the coronavirus has made some impact. Voters in at least six Oregon counties have fewer options for depositing their ballots in county-managed drop sites than they did two years ago, according to a survey OPB conducted of county elections officials.
In most instances those reductions have been minor. Four counties surveyed say they’ve been forced to reduce their number of ballot drops by one site, due to building closures brought on by the pandemic. In two eastern Oregon counties, the reduction has been somewhat larger.
Harney County officials say they’ll have four drop sites this year, compared to six two years ago. That’s because a library and senior center that previously housed drop boxes are closed to the public.
“Both of those locations are only several blocks from the Elections Office anyway, and removing them eliminates social distancing and sanitization issues in those facilities,” Harney County Clerk Derrin Robinson wrote in a response to OPB’s survey. “The remaining drop sites aside from the elections office are 24-hour drive up sites.”
In nearby Grant County, the reduction is more stark. Elections officials are providing two drop sites this election, compared to six in November 2018, a reduction of 66%. Both of the drop boxes for this election are located in Canyon City, the county seat.
“COVID has made it necessary to remove four boxes because two boxes were in small city halls, one box was in the senior center which is closed to the public and one box was in the county library which is also closed to the public,” Grant County Clerk Brenda Percy said.
The county still meets state rules that require each county to provide a minimum of two drop boxes, and at least one box for every 30,000 registered voters. That’s a far higher requirement than Texas, where a high-profile fight is playing out over the governor’s attempt to restrict ballot drop boxes to one per county, regardless of population, prior to Election Day.
Grant County had 5,432 registered voters in September. As of Wednesday morning, elections officials reported that more than a fifth of them had already cast ballots.
Changes, but less dramatic than elsewhere
OPB emailed a survey to elections officials in every Oregon county in late September, asking basic questions about drop sites, how many elections workers they planned to use, guidance they were providing on when to mail ballots and more. As of Wednesday, officials in 30 of the state’s 36 counties had replied to some extent.
While most counties that responded will have the same number of drop boxes as they did in November 2018, some are expanding despite difficulties brought on by COVID.
For instance, Jackson County recently added a drop box at the public library in Medford, County Clerk Chris Walker said. Benton, Multnomah and Tillamook counties reported adding a drop site, as well. (Multnomah County has also converted all boxes at shuttered county libraries to 24-hour sites, as opposed to being only available during business hours prior to the pandemic.)
Counties have also diverged in how many elections workers will be on hand to process ballots.
Some elections officials are reducing those numbers to accommodate safe social distancing. Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said he expects to have 55 people doing that work for this election, as opposed to 85 to 90 two years ago.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are instituting physical distancing for everyone’s safety,” Burgess said. “We do not have room for more people to work safely under the Oregon Health Authority guidelines.”
That’s the same rationale used by officials in Clackamas, Benton, Josephine and other counties that are reducing the number of workers processing ballots.
Some counties are increasing their numbers. Douglas County, for instance, plans to bring in 11 more temporary staffers than it used in 2018, according to County Clerk Dan Loomis.
The “participation rate is higher, and the number of registered voters has increased” in the last two years, Loomis said.
Increasing voter registration is also leading Deschutes County to increase the number of workers helping with the ballot process.
The most-pronounced change so far this election might be voters' rush to turn in their ballots. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 17% of ballots had already been returned, well above the nearly 13% at the same time during the 2016 presidential election.