Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has invited city workers to go door to door Friday to encourage people to vote in parts of East Portland with a record of low turnout.

City workers aren’t obligated to participate in the canvassing effort, but some who do will get paid for their time.

While public officials often encourage people to vote online or during debates, the door-knocking campaign is unusual and likely the first of its kind in Oregon. The fact that it is, in effect, funded by taxpayers has raised legal and ethical questions.

It’s part of a shift in direction Eudaly is charting for the city’s Office of Community and Civic Life, formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. She wants the bureau to engage more directly with questions about who is represented and counted in Portland.

“When people feel disenfranchised and afraid to participate, whether it’s voting or being counted in the Census, they lose, and really we all lose,” Eudaly said.

Here’s everything you need to know about the voter turnout campaign.

Wait, isn’t it illegal for public employees to engage in political campaigning while they’re at work?

Public employees cannot advocate for specific ballot measures or candidates during work hours, but they can provide members of the public with neutral information, such as the basics on how to cast a ballot.

Eudaly’s office says the canvassing event complies with that law because it will be non-partisan and content-neutral. Workers will hand out up to 5,000 fliers with information about ballot drop locations and how to access voting assistance for people with disabilities. A city attorney will brief participants about what is and isn’t allowed.

“We are bending over backward to make sure that employees understand how to participate in this effort without violating any rules,” Eudaly said. “For instance, they cannot wear campaign T-shirts or buttons. They cannot engage in conversations with voters that would encourage them to vote one way or another.”

Where is this happening?

Eudaly’s office is leaving the door-hangers in five East Portland precincts that had the lowest turnout in the past three citywide elections.

For you politicos, that’s Multnomah County precincts 4710, 4804, 4808, 5101, 5102.

Citywide voter turnout by precinct in Portland, Oregon.

Citywide voter turnout by precinct in Portland, Oregon.

City of Portland

Would an increase in turnout in these particular neighborhoods benefit any particular candidate or measure?

Willamette Week has raised questions about whether higher voter turnout in these areas could benefit candidates or measures that Eudaly has endorsed. Based on past election results, the targeted areas aren’t necessarily strongholds for the local candidates she supports. But they are areas where increased turnout may favor Democrats over Republicans.

For example, while Jo Ann Hardesty won virtually every precinct in Portland in the May City Council primary, her opponent, Loretta Smith, came in first in three of the five East Portland precincts the canvassers will visit. Eudaly has endorsed Hardesty.

But an increase in turnout in East Portland could benefit Democratic incumbent Gov. Kate Brown in the governor’s race. All five precincts being canvassed went solidly for Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber in the 2014 election.

Who’s participating?

Ten city workers have signed up so far. Eudaly is hoping a few dozen more will join. Staff at the two bureaus Eudaly oversees, the Office of Community and Civic Life and the Bureau of Transportation, can participate during paid work hours.

Staff at the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services are not being recruited to participate, because the utility bureaus are funded by water and sewer rates and are subject to additional restrictions.

Staff at the the Office of Equity and Human Rights, overseen by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, and the Parks Bureau, overseen by Commissioner Nick Fish, have been told they can participate on their own time but won’t be paid.

Flyers to be handed out during Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's door-to-door get out the vote canvassing.

Flyers to be handed out during Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s door-to-door get out the vote canvassing.

City of Portland

Who’s challenging it?

The Multnomah County Republican Party has filed a complaint about the door-to-door event, but not on grounds that it violates election law.

Instead, they’re arguing that Eudaly has run afoul of a state law that bars public officials from spending tax money for unauthorized purposes, because the canvassing project was not explicitly authorized in the city’s budget.

The Republicans have petitioned an obscure state agency, the Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission, to investigate.

“Can a City Council member just do whatever they want with city resources, regardless of what they asked for the money for?” said James Buchal, the Multnomah GOP chair.

The Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission consults with municipal governments on budget issues and serves as a watchdog over local budgeting practices.

The agency says this is the first citizen complaint it has received in more than 10 years, and it is evaluating whether it has jurisdiction to launch an investigation.

Eudaly said she’s consulted with the city attorney and is confident the door-to-door campaign will pass legal muster — and some independent experts think she’s right.

“Local governments provide flexibility in the budget process to accommodate for these kinds of situations,” said Chad Jacobs, a municipal attorney who’s represented dozens of cities in the Northwest.

Jacobs said Eudaly’s office will also have to establish that the canvassing project serves a public purpose; he said encouraging people to vote almost certainly clears the bar.

“It’s the foundation that’s going to keep our democracy alive and well,” Jacobs said.

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