Oregon elections officials are considering dropping much of a nearly $100,000 fine levied against a progressive political group that mishandled ballots in last year’s election.
Under the agreement, obtained by OPB, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office would suspend more than $70,000 of a $94,750 penalty assessed last month against Defend Oregon, a powerful political action committee in the state.
“The parties wish to resolve this matter without a hearing and in a manner that reduces related costs and expenses, as well as serves the public,” reads a stipulated order dated March 4.
The fines were the result of an error last November when the PAC collected ballots from voters on Election Day with a promise to turn them in by the time polls closed. That’s a legal practice under state law, but Defend Oregon got into trouble the day after the election when it discovered a box of 97 ballots had not been turned in.
Officials with Defend Oregon reported the mistake soon after, and Multnomah County’s elections director filed a formal complaint with the state.
After an investigation, the Secretary of State’s Office took a hard line with the group, imposing a $1,000 penalty for almost every ballot that wasn’t turned in. The fine it issued Feb. 12 was the second largest assessed for an election law violation since at least 2004, if not ever.
The severity arose in part from then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s stance on the ballot error.
“In the Secretary’s view, the harm of not having a ballot counted is more severe than any other violation of election law,” read a notice the secretary of state’s office sent the group last month. Richardson died on Feb. 26.
Elections officials have decided that Defend Oregon made an honest mistake, according to the secretary of state’s spokeswoman Debra Royal. Under an agreement with the group, $71,025 of the fine would be temporarily suspended, leaving $23,725 the PAC must pay.
The deal also requires Defend Oregon to submit its procedures for collecting ballots to the Secretary of State’s Office for approval. That includes information on who’s collecting ballots and how they’re trained, as well as how ballots are collected, tracked and stored.
If the group commits no further violations during the 2020 election, the suspended $71,025 will be forgiven completely.
“Over the past four months, we have cooperated fully with a Secretary of State investigation into a Defend Oregon mistake in November 2018 that resulted in the late turn-in of some ballots,” Becca Uherbelau, Defend Oregon’s director, said in a statement to OPB. “Ballot collection can be a vital tool to ensure that Oregonians who might otherwise face obstacles to turning in their ballots are able to fully participate in our democracy, and we want to ensure there are no future mistakes.”
Uherbelau said her group has audited its ballot-collection process since November.
Defend Oregon is connected to Our Oregon, the union-backed advocacy group that is active in pushing progressive ballot measures and opposing measures from business-backed groups.
Last year, Defend Oregon opposed Measure 103, which would have banned taxes on grocery sales and distribution. It also worked against measures to do away with the state’s sanctuary law and restrict the Legislature’s ability to raise revenue. Voters rejected all of those measures.