Oregon’s state elections director is out of the job, less than a week after a record-breaking general election that has yet to be certified.
Steve Trout, who was tapped for a second stint managing Oregon elections in 2017, served his last day on Friday, according to the secretary of state’s office. Trout’s former deputy, Michelle Teed, is serving as acting elections director, according to Andrea Chiapella, chief of staff for Secretary of State Bev Clarno.
“Steve gave us notice that he would be leaving the agency and in order to ensure a smooth transition, his last day was Friday,” Chiapella said Saturday evening. “We appreciate all of his great work as elections director and we are lucky to have had such a knowledgeable advocate for the democratic process on our team.”
Trout said Monday he was actually fired via text message last Thursday, after raising serious concerns about the office and informing Clarno he was seeking other work. He said he had committed to staying on with the secretary of state’s office until December 15, in order to complete duties associated with the election.
“I would not abandon my staff or the counties before the election is over, especially since I was the only one at the SOS office with a security clearance that could be notified of any election attacks during this certification process,” Trout wrote in an email. “There is no resignation letter because I didn’t resign. I was laid off via text message late Thursday.”
A memo Trout sent last week to secretary of state candidates provides more context to his dismissal. In the damning letter to Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan and her opponent, state Sen. Kim Thatcher, Trout laid out a litany of challenges faced by the elections division.
He said that the secretary of state’s office, which has been run by four people since 2015, suffered from “a lack of strategic vision and plans for the agency, and staff are not focused due to that lack of vision and leadership.” Part of that, Trout wrote in the letter sent on the eve of the election, was due to former Secretary of State Dennis Richardson dying of cancer in 2019, which, he noted, “was no one’s fault.”
While Trout touted strong partnerships with federal agencies in addressing threats and disinformation in Oregon elections, he said the elections division has been denied resources. He laid out 12 specific upgrades he’d requested for state election systems that had not been funded — projects such as a replacement for the state’s ORESTAR website, security upgrades and fixing dozens of bugs within elections systems.
“Some of our election systems are running on Windows Server 2008,” Trout wrote. “End-of-life mainstream support from Microsoft ended back on January 13, 2015, and all support ended on January 14, 2020. Our public facing websites are single threaded through one power supply on the capitol mall and one internet connection. There is no redundancy or resiliency or plan to provide either.”
Trout also said that the elections division is among the first places that sees budget cuts in tough times, and he complained that lawmakers had not authorized officials to spend nearly $12 million made available by the federal CARES Act. He also noted that lawmakers had rejected a request for a “social media/public records” position, even as the number of public records requests spiked.
Trout closed the memo on a dour note:
“I don’t want you to be surprised if you hear I am interviewing for new jobs,” he wrote. “It is not because I don’t want to work for either of you, but rather because I cannot succeed with the current state of technology and lack of support in the agency. I don’t believe anyone will be able to succeed.”
Trout did not make clear in the memo that his departure was imminent, however. Rather, he urged Fagan and Thatcher to take his concerns seriously, saying: “I would be willing to discuss staying on as a part of your administration. There are so many opportunities for improving elections right now throughout the country that I want to use my talents and abilities to effectuate the most good. As things currently stand, I cannot do that in Oregon, but with your leadership anything is possible.”
Clarno’s office said Monday that she was aware of the memo, but had not seen it. Trout’s departure was first reported by Willamette Week.
The negative portrayal of Oregon’s elections system runs counter to the reputation Oregon has enjoyed this year. As a leader in universal vote by mail, the state — and Trout specifically — have been a model for many other states who rushed to get their own systems online in the pandemic.
Last week’s events mark the second time Trout has been let go as the state’s election director. He was first pushed out in 2013 by then-Secretary of State Kate Brown, after roughly four years on the job. Trout began working for Clear Ballot, a company that supplies ballot creation and tallying equipment to many counties in Oregon and beyond. But he re-emerged in 2016, when newly elected Secretary of State Dennis Richardson added Trout to his transition team, and subsequently hired him as elections director.
Trout is not the only high-ranking member of Clarno’s staff to depart last week. Her chief of staff, Cameron Smith, also left the office, having accepted a job with the Northwest Credit Union Association. Smith’s plans to leave the office were announced in late September.
OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.