Think Out Loud

The tough job of being a county clerk in Oregon

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Nov. 15, 2023 11:36 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Nov. 16

Debbie Swenson, an elections specialist for Umatilla County's Election Division, sits inside a van parked outside the Pendleton Conference Center on August 15, 2022. The van is driven around the county to boost voter turnout and engage with residents about the electoral process.

Debbie Swenson, an elections specialist for Umatilla County's Election Division, sits inside a van parked outside the Pendleton Conference Center on August 15, 2022. The van is driven around the county to boost voter turnout and engage with residents about the electoral process.

Courtesy Umatilla County Election's Division


With the presidential election less than a year away, a recent survey commissioned by the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division highlights the challenges facing Oregon’s county clerks. Researchers at Reed College’s Elections & Voting Information Center surveyed nearly all of Oregon’s 36 county clerks who not only administer elections but also record property transactions and issue marriage licenses. But as the survey reveals, that job has become tougher and more stressful in recent years, with mounting threats, harassment and even suspicious mail that was sent earlier this month to clerks’ offices in Oregon, Washington and several other states.

More than a third of Oregon’s county clerks have also retired or resigned in 2020, which raises concerns around maintaining adequate staffing heading into an election cycle that takes months to prepare for and certify the results of. Joining us to discuss the challenges facing Oregon county clerks are Paul Manson, the lead author of the survey and research assistant professor at Portland State University and research director of the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College, Lane County Clerk Dena Dawson and Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. County clerks are the linchpins of American democracy. In Oregon and around the country, they manage free and fair elections. That’s in addition to a bunch of other vital roles. But a new report by the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College found that these offices are facing a series of crises. Staffing and retention have become major issues. Frivolous public records requests are intentionally gumming up the works. Politicized rhetoric is leading to threats of violence and all of this is creating high levels of stress and burnout. Paul Manson is the lead author of this new report. He’s a research assistant professor at Portland State University. He joins us now. We’re also joined by two county clerks. Chris Walker is in Jackson County. Dena Dawson is in Lane County. Welcome to all three of you.

Paul Manson: Great. Thanks for having me.

Dena Dawson: Thank you.

Chris Walker: Thank you.

Miller: Paul Manson, first. It’s great to have all three of you. Paul, why did the elections division at the state level commission you to do this report?

Manson: So we’re fortunate here in Oregon, our clerks association works with the elections division to talk about priorities and challenges they’re facing. And the Clerks Association identified staffing as one of the key worries, but they didn’t have a handle on what was happening across the state. And so the elections division reached out, asked us to help them out with this research and speak with every county clerk in order to understand what are the challenges they’re facing.

Miller: Chris Walker, can you give a sense for the various tasks that a county clerk has to do?

Walker: That’s kind of a loaded question. And it is a great question. Up until recently, we absolutely handled our jobs. We were election officials, we were county recorders. We did a variety of things for our electorate, for our residents within our counties. The EAC, the Elections Administration Commission, and you’ll find out we’re huge on acronyms, they put out actually a diagram of what county elections officials now have to deal with. And we have expectations of cybersecurity, physical security. Just recently, we need to know about paper, meaning envelopes and varietals of inks that go on those envelopes. How weather can affect those, how the plants that process those items can affect the quality of the paper. Not only do we conduct elections, but we also have to be kind of a mentors to our staff and to our temporary help, to make sure that they’re healthy and wealthy and taken care of during the whole process.

So there’s just an array of items that we have to do that are somewhat different than when I originally started in the elections job and it can be overwhelming at times. But ultimately, I still love what I do and it’s hugely important work for the people around the United States of America.

Miller: Dena Dawson, we’re not talking about the past or things that happened long ago. We’re talking about things that are happening right now. Just last week, your elections office received a piece of suspicious mail. What can you share with us about that incident?

Dawson: Sure. Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here and to lend my voice for us election officials. This is not the first time that I’ve been in this situation as an election official, but last week, the day after our November 7th special election, our team was just processing regular, we call it street mail, it was not ballots, and one of our staff members opened up a piece of mail and immediately said, “Uh oh, I think there’s a problem.” And another staff member sitting nearby jumped up, asked her to go wash her hands immediately, came and got me immediately, pulled me to the area, where we realized that there was a piece of suspicious mail with a suspicious substance. So we moved everyone from the area immediately.

And unfortunately because of the world that we live in, I have my FBI crimes partner’s phone number basically on speed dial. So I reached out to our resources, contacted our FBI crimes partner, and contacted our local police department. They were here within a few minutes. And shortly afterward, Hazmat and fire department were on site and we thought, hey, maybe we’ll be back at work in about an hour because we’ve gotta finish processing ballots. So we hung around for a while to quickly learn that it was, out of an abundance of caution, we were sending everybody home for the day. The staff that had come in contact with the mail were asked to go home and to shower and to bag their clothes and to leave them in the garage…sorry, still get a little emotional, and to wait for further instructions.

So later that evening, we learned that we were gonna be able to come back to work the next day. And so it’s an ongoing investigation. We don’t have anything official, [no] official reports, but we quickly learned that day that this was happening not only here in Lane County, but in several other offices. So I’m really appreciative to our public safety partners for acting immediately.

But yeah, it’s so incredible that I consider election work to be complex and technical and it really requires a lot of us. It requires dedicated public servants who are willing to put their lives on hold and we put our work above our family and our friends, and now it really comes with threats and the actual possibility of death. I can’t even believe to say that out loud, but it’s unfortunate.

Miller: Chris Walker, could you describe the threat that your office received after the November 2020 election?

Walker: Yes. Thank you so much for asking as well, because it affects all of us in elections administration and I believe it’s gonna get worse before it gets better. So we had just certified our election, November of ‘20 general election. And the day after, drove into work and we were notified that there had been, not graffiti, but writing in the parking lot that’s directly across the street from the elections building and it is owned by the county. And so I walked over there and there was a big five gallon paint bucket, white, with a roller on it, and rolled in the parking lot in probably six to eight ft lettering, it said, “Vote don’t work, next time bullets.” And at that point, your jaw just kind of drops. You really don’t know…not what to do, but you’re in shock.

And so of course, following a lot of the same protocols that Dena did here in Lane County, I contacted our FBI partners, and I notified Homeland Security, of course, the county sheriff, local law enforcement. All of our partners, we can’t do this job without them. We’ve got connections to them [and know] that we can get a hold of them immediately. We have protocols to follow. We notified the Secretary of State, and then again, the sheriff did kind of take the lead locally and wrote that up with a report, here in Jackson County.

But after that, it kind of leaves you with that sense of, OK, is it just somebody trying to scare us? We aren’t gonna live our lives looking behind our shoulders every day, but it did give us that sense of why we really need to now take more secure protocols. We need to talk to our staff. We don’t wanna scare our election board workers, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if we weren’t mindful that you have to be very proactive in your own protection, as well as the things that we can do at the elections office and around the county at our job sites to keep not just our workers safe, but also the public themselves. So very, very disturbing behavior.

Miller: Paul Manson, my understanding is that you were able to have interviews with 34 of the 36 county clerks. It seems like a really high rate of participation. Can you give us a sense for what those conversations were like?

Manson: These are great conversations and you get a snippet here just in our conversation. I’m amazed when I have a chance to talk with county clerks. The passion for elections and democracy and voter rights is first and foremost. But even in our interviews and this was back in January through March, we had to pause quite often because this was very emotional. These were hard to get through. We are lucky that we were able to talk to so many clerks, especially because over the last year, a little over a third of the clerks have left office.

Miller: Wait, in one year…


Manson: In the past year.

Miller: …a third have left. What are the reasons they’ve given?

Manson: So the ones that we’ve had a chance to speak with, who were kind enough to join their predecessor, were sort of sharing the rate and pace of change, I think. We started out talking here today about some of these abuse and threat concerns, but it’s also been a really busy environment in terms of how we’ve changed the way we do elections in Oregon and for the better. But it’s a new set of rules and technologies and techniques and at the same time, staffing levels in every county we spoke with is at the same level as a decade ago or lower. And so they’re doing more with less across those changes, so that’s stress and burnout and then we add what happens in the past cycle.

Miller: Dena, what does staffing look like in Lane County right now?

Dawson: Well, right now, I oversee the recording office and the election office and just specifically for the election office, 10 full-time staff, but myself and the other two leadership positions pull double duty. So our time is split between the recording office and here. So that leaves me with seven full-time election staff. Right now, we have five vacant election positions.

Miller: Five of seven?

Dawson: Yeah, we’re currently recruiting for a chief deputy clerk, a voter registration lead and three entry level election staff. And we just filled, within the last month, the program supervisor position and a mail ballot specialist position. We are going into the presidential election cycle and we’re gonna have more than 70% of our staff be new to elections or new to their role.

Miller: And that’s if you can hire?

Dawson: Yes, exactly. Prior to coming here, I’ve been doing this 18 years, I was the director of elections in Denver and my daughter lives in Portland. So when I saw this job come up in Lane County a year and a half ago, I jumped on it, but I worry about what would have happened if somebody that didn’t have my years of experience took this role. So I’m grateful to have the experience that I have to be able to lead a brand new staff. That’s an incredible rate. 70% of our election staff will be new to elections or new to their role going into a presidential election cycle.

Miller: Chris Walker, another finding of this survey looked into the increase in public records requests that county clerks and their staff have to respond to. What has that looked like for you?

Walker: Another great question. Yes, in the last two to four years, we’ve just had an array of things that we have never seen requested before as far as the public records request. A lot of them are copy and paste, they look to be, because a lot of the verbiage is exactly the same. So some kind of a formal or informal group looking to purported under integrity of elections. So that has overwhelmed us, because quite frankly, sometimes either the reports they’re asking for, we’ve never even pulled that report. And then the other intent is to make sure and keep the voter secrecy on their ballots, to make sure that these items being requested can’t 100% produce an election, that you can tell how an individual voter voted. So we have so many things that we have to look at when doing these. In Jackson County, we have a set process. We work with the County Council for response, and then just to look at those requests and try to figure out what they’re looking for - In some cases, it can take hours and hours of our time before we’ve ever even answered the response about how much time it will take us and the resources it will take us to fulfill those requests.

And I’m a public records advocate, I understand the need for public records, but in some ways, the scope has gone beyond the context of just your public records, because of the staff time it takes. Now that being said, I have two full-time staff members in my elections office and we do share a half person, halftime in elections, halftime in the recording office, because in Jackson County and I believe as well in Lane County and most counties, the county clerk’s office has multiple programs. We have the county clerk’s recording office and the county clerk’s elections office. We are all under one budget. So it can be unique because we would, of course, cross train and share staff in the recording office with elections during big elections when we needed to. And we just move people around. Well, in March of this year, we actually had to reduce by two staff members. So now we have six employees including myself in that, two-and-a-half in elections, two-and-a-half in recording.

So leading into a big presidential election where you’re normally staffing up, trying to make sure that you have appropriate staff, we are actually being asked to reduce staff in that, which makes the county clerk’s position, as well as Dena stated, we are not just ceremonial. We are doing the work every single day and split between multiple programs. And in Jackson County, those are two separate offices in two separate buildings.

Miller: Paul, so I’m curious about the larger statewide funding issue. What did you hear?

Manson: So what Chris is sharing is key. So the two sides of the house and the clerk’s office generate a lot of work. But for the recording side, there’s revenue there. The Oregon Constitution requires the counties to pay for and fund the administration of elections from the local, federal races. And the funding sources we’ve heard across the board really are in many ways dependent on recording activity. So if you’ve purchased a home or refinanced a mortgage, a portion of the fees there in that final closing document goes to the county recording fees.

Miller: And that pays for the management of local or federal elections?

Manson: And that has been pooled in order to essentially do that, so what we’ve seen is this increase in interest rates or a change in the housing market directly impacts the revenue sources for a county clerk office and then leads to hard choices like Chris just shared about reducing staff.

Miller: Dena, what has that looked like? You mentioned that you were the director of elections for the city and county of Denver for a long time. I’m curious, the changes you see and what the difference in funding [is], because my understanding is that Denver had more money to spend on elections. What does that mean for voters in the two places?

Dawson: Well, when I look at my time as director of elections in Denver and my time here, the one thing that’s consistent is that we have incredibly dedicated staff. The difference [with] my time in Denver is it was well funded. So we had a GIS expert on staff. We had two data architects on staff. We had a legal counsel on staff that supported the elections division. This election work is so vast in the responsibilities that we have, that you need so many subject matter experts. And if you are lucky enough to be well staffed, you have those experts that know elections inside and out and they’re subject matter experts in their fields.

And here, in many of our counties here in Oregon, we’re dependent upon services from our local support. So we’ll need local GIS support here. But if there is a fire, a wildfire, I am competing against the wildfire to get GIS services and that’s difficult. In counties that are competing for resources such as this, it is not uncommon to be second to a wildfire in an election cycle. So being able to be fully funded and have subject matter experts that you need on staff, it’s a game changer. It means that I don’t have to work 80 hours a week. I might only have to work 50, because we’re spreading out the work evenly. It means that I wouldn’t have to be a GIS expert or I wouldn’t have to be a cybersecurity expert or a data architect to build the tools that we need. It means that I would have that person on staff. So it is incredibly important for elections to be funded adequately.

Miller: Dena, one of the things that came up in Paul’s survey is that many clerks in Oregon no longer tell people they meet, say at a party, what they do. Is that true for you?

Dawson: Yeah. I think that was me and I mean, I know that I said it, but there probably were several of us, but since 2020 when I meet a stranger and they say, what do you do for a living? I say I work for the county. I do not tell strangers that I’m an election official until I know them and hear their views on how elections are conducted in this country. And that is heartbreaking because I am so proud of the work that I do.

Miller: Chris Walker, what about you? We have one minute left. I apologize for asking this question with a minute left, but have you dealt personally with people who call into question the very nature of your job?

Walker: Oh, absolutely. And that’s one of the biggest differences over the last so many years. Again, like Dena said, we’re proud of what we do. I mean, you feel like you’re making a difference in your community. Now, I’m an elected county clerk, 28 years working under the county clerk’s offices, almost over 15 elected. And I have never felt the sense of being embarrassed or fearful to let people know what I do. And of course, I’m on the ballots. So people will naturally recognize you when you’re out and about. And I’ve lived in my community my whole life. But there is a sense that you don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way. And sometimes when you do that, a lot of people feel they can just open up and kind of lash out at you, even when you’re on your personal time. And, and then start asking questions about process and procedure, which we’re open to, but there’s a time and a place. And I think the biggest pieces, we just have to show respect for our similarities and respect for our differences.

Miller: Chris Walker, Dena Dawson and Paul Manson, we’ve got to leave it there, but thanks very much for joining us.

Walker: Thank you so much.

Miller: Chris Walker is county clerk in Jackson County, Dena Dawson in Lane County, Paul Manson, research assistant professor at Portland State University.

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