A pair of Democrat-sponsored bills aimed at expanding voter access are under fire from a conservative group that argues the changes will make state elections less secure.

People affiliated with the group Oregonians for Fair Elections have now filed referendum petitions that, if successful, would ask voters to approve or reject the new laws next year. To do that, they’d need to collect 74,680 valid signatures in opposition to each bill by Sept. 24, a tight timeline that could be hard to meet as the state struggles with a resurgence of COVID-19.

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A stack of envelopes is printed with the words "Ballot enclosed" on each.

Election workers process ballots at the Multnomah County election office in Portland, Ore., November 2, 2020. Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The two bills activists are attempting to overturn have similar goals, but very different profiles during this year’s Legislative session.

The first, House Bill 2681, ensured that voters cannot be labeled “inactive” — and so ineligible to automatically receive a ballot — for the sole reason of not voting. It’s an extension of other steps Oregon has taken in recent years.

In 2017, then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, announced the state would no longer label voters “inactive” if they had not voted for five consecutive years. Richardson increased that window to 10 years, and subsequently announced he wanted to end the practice of labeling voters inactive because they had not voted.

With that stance, Richardson set himself apart from other Republican elections officials around the country implementing stringent policies to purge voter rolls. Richardson died in 2019, while still in office, but his position still appears to hold sway with Republican lawmakers, many of whom voted in favor of HB 2681 this year.

Voters can still be labeled “inactive” for other reasons, including not responding when their ballot has been challenged at the polls because of a missing signature, or a signature that is dissimilar to what the state has on file.

HB 2681 requires county clerks to mail all inactive voters for whom they have a current address notice of their inactive status prior to primary and general elections, and to include information for how to reactivate their registration.

The second bill targeted for reversal is less bipartisan. House Bill 3291 implemented a change, already in practice in other vote-by-mail states, that will allow mailed ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and reach officials within a week of the election. Ballots in Oregon have traditionally only been accepted if they are received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Democrats pushing the bill argued it will improve access to voting, removing confusion or uncertainty about when a ballot must be mailed. They touted the move as a positive step, as Republican-controlled states around the country have sought to enact barriers to voting.

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GOP lawmakers in Oregon were adamant that the bill could create opportunities for fraud. Key among their concerns is a provision that could allow ballots to be counted if they don’t have a postmark due to error by the postal service. HB 3291 passed almost entirely along party lines.

The bills now face a possible hurdle. Affiliates of the conservative group Oregonians for Fair Elections filed a referendum petition against HB 2681, the inactive voter bill, in June. The same core group filed a petition against HB 3291 earlier this month, and is awaiting approval to begin collecting signatures.

Janice Dysinger, a Gresham resident and president of Oregonians for Fair Elections, is a chief petitioner behind both efforts. So is a Portland woman named Cheryl Bowen, who did not return a call for comment.

A self-described “election integrity activist,” Dysinger believes the state’s election system is not as secure as it could be with tighter safeguards. In a recent interview, she questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election, but noted that she could not prove any fraud occurred in Oregon, which favored Democrat Joe Biden by 16 points.

“I think it was significantly closer than the numbers show,” she said.

Similarly, Dysinger doesn’t trust the motives behind the two bills she now hopes to overturn. By leaving non-voting people on the state’s voter rolls indefinitely, she believes the state’s list of voters risks becoming unreliable.

“I question if they live here, or if they’re a resident of Oregon,” she said.

Dysinger says the postmark bill could open up elections to trickery. She echoed concerns raised by Republican lawmakers this year that the bill could allow interest groups to game the post office to achieve valid postmarks after the 8 p.m. cutoff to vote on Election Day.

“It makes the election more secure when we all get our ballots in on the same day and it’s done,” Dysinger said. “To say somebody doesn’t have time to get it in or that they’re being discriminated against is just to ignore the fact that they have responsibility.”

Whether Dysinger can successfully make that case to enough Oregonians to force a referendum election is a question she cannot answer. Under the state Constitution, she and her supporters need to hand in signatures by Sept. 24, 90 days after the close of the Legislative session.

While the campaigns have indicated that they might pay signature gatherers, Dysinger said she hopes it won’t be necessary. Campaign volunteers plan to collect signatures at the Oregon State Fair, she said. A campaign committee associated with the effort to overturn the inactive voter bill has reported raising roughly $15,000. A committee has yet to be set up for the push to overturn the postmark bill.

Complicating things, Dysinger said she recently contracted a serious case of COVID-19 and that, while her condition has improved, the illness sapped some of her campaign’s very limited time.

“I may not be able to get it,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m going to work very hard.”

The two campaigns are not the only efforts seeking to overturn a bill passed this year. Three current and former Republican lawmakers have filed a referendum petition that could force an up-or-down vote on new gun controls Democrats passed during the session.

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