With November election ballots already starting to arrive in mailboxes, the state of Oregon is sending out the message that elections here continue to be free, fair and secure. The Secretary of State’s office is encouraging Oregon voters to “know their rights” and urging anyone who feels someone is trying to intimidate them at the ballot box or elsewhere to report it to her office. Donald Trump and his supporters are attempting to cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections with lies about election fraud, and specifically about the security of voting by mail.
Voters in some Oregon counties have complained about being questioned about their votes from people falsely representing themselves as government employees. And Oregon is not immune to the “monitoring” of voters at ballot boxes, which some voters say they find intimidating. Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan joins us to remind us about the safeguards baked into the state’s vote-by-mail system, and walk us through the efforts to counter disinformation and intimidation.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Ballots have been arriving in Oregon mailboxes this week. Those come from county elections offices. The state is also sending something out: the message that elections here continue to be fair and secure. The Secretary of State’s office is encouraging Oregon voters to know their rights, and they are urging anyone who feels that they’re being intimidated at the ballot dropbox, or elsewhere, to report it. The broader context is that Donald Trump and his supporters continue to try to sow doubt about the integrity of U.S. elections with lies about election fraud. Many of them are focused on the security of voting by mail. Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan joins us now with more. Welcome back to the show.
Shemia Fagan: Good afternoon, Dave. How are you?
Miller: Doing very well. Thanks for joining us. I should say, we asked folks on Facebook and Twitter what they think about Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, and all of the comments were positive. A lot of people used the word love. Ian Rose on Twitter said, ‘I can’t imagine voting any other way. Combined with the free voter guide in every mailbox, it’s the best system in the country.’ Laurie Cantelon Anderson wrote, ‘I’m grateful that I don’t have to stress about standing in lines, getting a babysitter to vote, or missing work. I worked to count votes one year and saw how the system works in tallying the votes, so I’m very confident in my vote getting counted and the integrity of Oregon’s system.’ I want to start, Shemia Fagan, with the process for managing elections in Oregon, beginning with maintaining lists of voters. What do county elections officials do to make sure that those lists are accurate?
Fagan: First off, Dave, I’m gonna apologize for my voice. It’s a little more gravelly than normal. I’m a fourth-grade basketball coach, so I lose my voice typically during that. Hopefully your listeners can still fully understand me. I share what Ian said; I can’t even imagine voting any other way. We know that it’s safe and secure because our elections do start with accurate lists. The elections division regularly updates voter registration lists to remove deceased people, people who have moved and other changes that impact their eligibility.
Oregon is actually a member, and a founding member, of the Elections Registration Information Center, affectionately known as ERIC. It’s actually a national data-sharing system that ensures the sharing of up-to-date voter registration information among states. So, if somebody were to register to vote, for example, in New Mexico, ERIC would then flag that for Oregon to know that person has then updated their registration in New Mexico. We’re also a member of the National Change of Address, which is a system that provides a secure database of individuals and families that have filed change of address forms with the U.S. Postal Service. In addition to that, obviously, the state receives information, from the health authority and other state agencies, that’s regularly shared to complement that national information. This is not something that’s happening every couple of years or once a year, Dave. This is happening monthly – that our counties are out there making sure that we clean up our voter registration lists, and the state as well. That’s one thing that Oregonians can know, is that we start with those accurate lists.
Miller: That determines who is going to get a ballot. What happens after someone fills it out and either mails it back or puts it in an official dropbox?
Fagan: The life of a ballot, right? This is actually something that we gave an award for last year to a Girl Scout troop in my home county of Wasco County. They created a cool video called the ‘[Path] of the Ballot’ and I encourage folks to go find that. We gave them a National Association of Secretaries of States Medallion Award.
The first thing that happens, Dave, is that we make– the counties of course… As Secretary of State’s Office, just to be clear for your listeners, I don’t receive any ballots. I don’t send ballots. I don’t receive ballots. The only ballot I touch during the election is my own ballot. That’s the only one. The Secretary of State’s Office doesn’t send or receive ballots. That’s done by our 36 county elections offices. I have, as of last week, I’ve visited all of them in the state. I’ve said to each county elections office, from Wallowa to Curry, from Clatsop to Malheur, ‘Walk me through your process…’
Miller: And Clackamas too, I hope.
Fagan: Yes. And everywhere in between. I’ve been to all 36 county elections offices. In fact, I was at Clackamas yesterday dropping off COVID tests. The big thing is, number one, we make sure the ballot was cast on time. For most ballots that’s, was it received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Because of the new postmark rule, if a ballot is postmarked by Election Day – even if it’s received up to seven days after but it has that Election Day or on-or-before Election Day postmark – then that ballot was also cast on time. Obviously some postmarks are visible; you can see the stamp. But what people may not realize is that some postal offices use kind of an invisible postmark. So our county elections offices actually have a scanner to scan for those invisible ‒ what looks invisible to the naked eye ‒ to make sure that ballot was cast on time. So, number one, was it cast on time. The second thing that happens is the barcode on the ballot will be scanned. There’s a barcode, a unique barcode, on each ballot envelope. This is how our system knows that your ballot has been accepted or is being processed. Folks may know that they can go on oregonvotes.gov and track if their ballot has been received. I know that a lot of people, during election season, like to post, ‘Oh, I just got this notification. My ballot has been received.’ That’s from that barcode scanning. It allows election workers to pull up your voter registration information on the computer.
Miller: That reminds me, just yesterday I saw some people posting photos of the envelopes they had gotten, that included a barcode, to social media to say, ‘Hey, I’ve voted.’ Is that a bad idea?
Fagan: No, our system is very secure. Folks can post a photo if they want because that’s a unique barcode. That’s unique to that voter. What’s going to happen, Dave, when that barcode is scanned, is the voter registration information is going to come up, and most importantly, the signature or signatures that are on file for that voter. Then the elections worker is going to compare the signature on that ballot with the signature that’s on the voter registration file to confirm it’s that person. I want to make sure folks know this is not a randomized sample. Every single signature is checked – every one, not just a sample, not just a statistical amount. Every single signature is checked to make sure that that’s the person who actually did vote. If the signature doesn’t match, and I’m sure folks have had this experience or know somebody whose signature didn’t match, that then gets kicked back saying, ‘Sorry this signature doesn’t match’ and they have an opportunity to cure. But the vast majority of signatures do match because people are the ones signing those envelopes, or they haven’t changed their signature.
The envelopes are then opened – and this is important – the ballot is then separated from the envelope. So this is your privacy of your vote, Dave. That envelope that has your name on it and your voter registration information through that unique barcode is separated from the ballot that you voted on. Face down, so nobody gets to connect your vote with your ballot envelope. Those go into a stack. Those are opened by teams of election board workers who are sitting there. Always multiple people from different political parties are actually opening those envelopes. This step is done in teams, like I said, from different political parties.
At that point, there are stacks of ballots that are put into batches, and they’re then run through the tabulator machine. These machines of course are completely offline – O. F. F. – offline, never connected to the internet. And they’re actually publicly tested before and after each election. They’re called logic and accuracy tests, and the public can go watch. I’m not gonna promise it’s a good time. It’s a very delightfully boring, secure, tedious process. But if people want to see that happen, they’re welcome to go and watch those public logic and accuracy tests at the elections office.
So those are then run through the tabulator. Then of course the counting machine produces a report of those results, and that report for that batch number is actually stored with those paper ballots. The reason that’s important, Dave, is because at the very end of the election, before I certify the results... When OPB and KGW and the Oregonian and the Medford Mail Tribune and all the newspapers and news companies are reporting those unofficial results on Election Day or a few days after, those are unofficial. I don’t certify the official election results until all 36 counties have performed a post-election audit. What that means is I direct, through the elections division, a certain number of batches of those paper ballots to be pulled off the walls, literally batches pulled off the shelves. Then people in the elections boards hand count those paper ballots to make sure they marked exactly what that tabulator machine printed out for that batch number – not one ballot less, not one ballot more. Not one vote less, not one vote more. Exactly. When those post-election audits have been performed, that’s when – about 30 days after the election – I actually certify the official election results.
Miller: So what you’ve just described as the system in Oregon with safeguards built in the different parts of the process. Nevertheless, from the national level filtering down, there have been many questions and allegations of widespread fraud, especially with vote by mail, but not not solely vote by mail, never with real data to back it up. But these big lies have been repeated enough that they’re everywhere. Where do you see the effects of those lies in Oregon?
Fagan: At our county elections level … I mean, as I said, I visited every county elections office in all 36 in the state of Oregon and we have county elections officials who are just exhausted. They love their work. They love helping facilitate democracy for their communities. These are folks who are neighbors in Lakeview, Oregon, right? These are local folks running local elections who are independently running their elections from the Secretary of State’s office. I support them, but they don’t work for me. They work for their counties who either elect them or the county commissioners who appoint them. And so that’s where we’re seeing the strain the most.
We’re not actually worried about the election results in Oregon. We know we have safe and secure elections, but the big lie ‒ and thank you for pointing that out, Dave ‒ that people have been given opportunities multiple times to present any evidence of widespread voter fraud in court of law to produce evidence and they have been able to produce none whatsoever. So it’s simply a conspiracy theory. But sadly it’s a conspiracy that’s believed by about one in five Oregon voters, and that’s a significant amount of our population. And I have to make sure that I’m focused on even speaking to those folks. That’s why in the last week I did a joint video with the Republican lieutenant governor in Utah, who’s kind of my counterpart. She’s the lieutenant governor who also oversees elections in Utah. So she’s my kind of secretary of state counterpart there. They do vote by mail in Utah and have for years. And so we did a joint video together saying, you know, she’s a Republican, I’m a Democrat, she cheers for the Jazz, I cheer for the Blazers. But when it comes to vote by mail, we’re on the same team, and so we know it’s safe and secure here in Oregon. But yes, those conspiracy theories definitely are wearing on our county elections officials.
Miller: Kevin Sieber responded to our questions on social media saying, ‘I love that I can take my time to really research the issues specific to my ballot and send it in without having to deal with interference or intimidation at a polling place.’ Earlier this week, the Siuslaw News reported that a conservative group called the Florence Liberty Alliance put up a post on its Facebook page asking for volunteers for a quote ‘ballot box watch team’. What is allowed near a ballot box? And what goes against the law?
Fagan: So what we want voters to know is their rights as Oregon voters. And that’s number one, you have the right to vote without intimidation. And that includes the process of going up and dropping your ballot in the dropbox. So that is a right. It’s illegal to interfere actually with the voter casting their ballot. And if this happens to folks, first make sure you’re safe obviously, but leave that area and report the incident to the Oregon elections division. And we actually created Know Your Rights posters, that we designed with the Department of Justice to make sure all the information was accurate. And we have issued those to all 36 counties and said post these however you want on or near your dropbox. Some people have done kind of a magnetic sticker that goes on the side of the dropbox. Some are going to do lawn signs, but to remind people what their rights are as Oregon voters because you have the right to vote without intimidation.
Miller: But what is intimidation? Let’s say that some group from whatever political affiliation or party had a bunch of volunteers in front of a dropbox, and they had people with cell phone cameras out in a public place. Is that intimidation?
Fagan: So it’s not intimidation to have a camera itself in filming the way you said, the example was they’re standing in front of a drop box. That would obviously be obstructing somebody’s ability to vote, if they were preventing that person from then going in. So intimidation can include aggressive or harassing questions about whether someone is qualified to vote, that are intended to interfere with the right to vote, intimidation, or could be scaring a person to voting a certain way, or intimidating someone for voting. Those are examples of aggressive or harassing questions, questions about citizenship status, criminal record, residency or other personal information, or questions about how you intend to vote, right? People are willing to share and obviously do, through bumper stickers and endorsements and donations. They often share voluntarily how they plan to vote. But that’s your choice to disclose that information. Nobody has a right to question how you intend to vote.
Also, Dave, false or misleading statements or accusations about voter fraud or related criminal penalties designed to frighten you away from voting. That would include voter intimidation. Obviously verbal or physical threats, either expressed or implied, that are meant to stop you from voting or to force you to vote for a particular candidate or measure. As I said, purposely obstructing or interfering with your ability to vote or targeting surveillance of particular voters or groups of voters. So if somebody was targeting surveillance at certain voters in a certain area, maybe there’s a strong Latinx or Latino population and they say, ‘oh we’re going to just go watch these voters’ that are targeting surveillance of a particular group of voters, or following or tracking those folks, copying license plates, taking photos or videos with the intent to dissuade or obstruct them from voting. Those are all examples of voter intimidation and folks are experiencing anything like this, number one, make sure that you are safe, and number two, to report that to the Oregon elections division, and we will escalate to local law enforcement if it falls within criminal conduct.
Miller: I want to turn from intimidation to the possibility of misinformation or confusion. A couple days ago, many Oregonians received a 2022 Oregon voter guide that says, in a big font on the front, it says below that it has simple and clear information on the ballot measures appearing on Oregon’s November 2022 ballot, and recommendations for many of Oregon’s most trusted organizations.
It was paid for largely by public employee unions and it does say that on the mailer when you turn it over, in small print, but the headlines literally and figuratively is that this is an Oregon voter guide. I received one of them in the mail, I think a day before I got the actual voter guide. What are the rules governing this kind of mailer?
Fagan: So the first rule governing any kind of campaign material is the First Amendment to the U.S. and the Oregon Constitution. So obviously, political speeches is some of the most protected speech. So we have to start there with the First Amendment, that obviously candidates don’t like sometimes what people say, or don’t say about them, what TV commercials have certainly been on the ballot, and not like things that people said about me in TV commercials or whatever. So first off it starts with the First Amendment. So what we oversee and what we really crack down on is people spreading false or misleading information about election processes, how to register, or election dates. We’re focused in my sphere is the process of voting and the election.
Miller: Well, couldn’t you argue that, in Oregon, that a place that mails out a voter guide, calling something 2022 Oregon Voter Guide, does meddle with the process in a way that’s different than just saying ‘don’t vote for candidate X, they’re a monster’. It kind of inflated campaign language. This says it’s a voter guide.
Fagan: And organizations are allowed to put out voter guides. And again, if there is a complaint that goes into the elections division about that particular mail, I have not received that. So, I’m not aware of … I haven’t seen the mailer that you’re talking about, but it applies to any mailer. If there is a complaint that has broken a law, that doesn’t go to show me Shemia Fagan, the Secretary of State, that goes to our elections division, and we have a complaint team where of course there’s due process, and the people putting out the voter guide get to respond. So there’s a whole process.
But again, what I will be looking for in that mailer is do they misstate the election date? Do they misinform voters about when they can register to vote or how to vote? So people should just be aware that I as a Secretary of State, we don’t ever advocate for or against any candidate. So we put out, of course, the voters pamphlet, but that’s still information supplied by candidates. If a candidate in the voter guide says they’re gonna uphold gun safety regulation, or they’re going to uphold the Second Amendment, those are things that candidates say about themselves, and they are not verifying the truth or accuracy. We just give candidates the opportunity to give 750 word statements in the voter pamphlet. But if there is a false statement either in that or in any other mailer, that is a process that people need to go through making a complaint with the elections division. But what we’re looking for is false information about election processes that make it more difficult for people to vote.
Miller: Shemia Fagan, thanks for your time.
Fagan: You got it. Dave, thanks for having me.
Miller: Fagan is Oregon’s Secretary of State.
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