Some Oregon votes have been signed, sealed, delivered — but not yet counted

By Emily Cureton (OPB)
Nov. 16, 2020 1:30 p.m. Updated: Nov. 16, 2020 4:39 p.m.

Oregon voters have until Tuesday to correct challenged signatures. In some cases, those ballots could flip the race.

The envelope reached my house in Bend five days after Election Day, and after the presidential race was decided.

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“Dear voter,” read the official letter from Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship, informing me in plain language that my vote had not been counted.

Related: OPB’s 2020 election coverage and results

My heart skipped a beat. The letter said if I didn’t respond soon, my voter registration would be considered inactive.

“Don’t be offended. That’s one of the ways that we’re protecting you as the voter, and the system,” Blankenship said in an interview.

She oversees voting in a county that just held its largest election ever. Registrations in Deschutes County have increased by around 50% since 2016, fueled in part by the success of the state’s motor voter law, which automatically registers Oregonians who use services at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

This election, Deschutes’ glut of challenged ballots rivals Oregon’s most populous county, Multnomah, where around 3,000 voters were asked to correct signature issues, according to figures provided by the secretary of state’s office.

With just a quarter Multnomah’s population, Deschutes County officials challenged around 2,500 voter signatures.

Through Friday, some 2,300 of these ballots had still not been accepted for various reasons, according to Blankenship.

Despite being a routine process, verifying signatures can have consequences in very close races. Election night returns show Republican state Sen. Tim Knopp defeating Democratic nominee Eileen Kiely by around 1,500 votes. Instead of sending a victory note, Knopp sent out a fundraising plea.

“The fight isn’t over,” reads a Nov. 9 letter from Knopp. “Your contribution will go directly to ensuring we maintain our lead in this election.”

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The letter seeks an additional $75,000 for his campaign to reach voters with challenged ballots, and keep up with similar canvassing efforts by Kiely.

The intended purpose of challenging ballots is to prevent fraud, Blankenship said, and the system works. She described how her office caught a rare case of someone intentionally impersonating another voter in 2016. This year, it weeded out a few examples of parents signing envelopes for grown children off at college, “which is a no no.”

When the ballots first arrive to the clerk’s office, they are sorted by a machine. After that, key steps in the process depend on people.

Ballots received by Deschutes County are scanned by this mail sorting machine, which can sort up to 30,000 ballot envelopes per hour. Then, the machine scans each signature, which is then verified by “human eyes,” according to County Clerk Nancy Blankenship.

Ballots received by Deschutes County are scanned by this mail sorting machine, which can sort up to 30,000 ballot envelopes per hour. Then, the machine scans each signature, which is then verified by “human eyes,” according to County Clerk Nancy Blankenship.

Deschutes County / Courtesy of Deschutes County/OPB

“Every single ballot that comes through our office is reviewed by human eyes,” Blankenship said, adding that her staff has special training to compare what’s scrawled on the envelope, to whatever signatures are on file for that voter.

Issues with signatures matching are on the rise as more and more people register to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles, where they sign their names with a clunky electronic stylus.

“The [DMV] equipment doesn’t capture a good representation of the voter’s signature,” Blankenship said.

Bend resident Nick Evano voted early, but forgot to sign with a middle initial this time.

“I have terrible handwriting,” Evano said, describing his signature as looking “kind of like a bird’s nest.”

When his ballot was challenged, he went to the clerk’s office to sort it out.

“I asked if I could stay until they could either confirm that it was valid, or you know, not leave until I knew my vote was going to count,” Evano said, adding that overall he trusts the process, and the people who carry it out. Still, he wondered if the extra steps will leave some voters behind during the worsening pandemic.

For my own challenged ballot, I felt nervous signing the new form sent to my home. My hand froze for a second over the line. It felt somehow personal to be challenged on the way I loop an “E,” or curve a “C.” I dropped it in the mail, and hoped for the best. At the time, I didn’t realize that if the mailed form is rejected again, I won’t get another notification.

I wasn’t able to immediately verify what happened after I mailed in the new form. Statewide, challenged voters have until this Tuesday — that’s Nov. 17 — to prove their signature and be counted.

After that, Blankenship said, the vote counts will be certified and the political races — even close ones like the state senate seat here in Bend — will be over.

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