Social distancing is baked into the very nature of Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, which is known for its high participation rates. But Multnomah County election officials have found that some groups participate at much lower rates than others — including voters for whom English is not their native language.
Since 2015, the county’s voter education and outreach program has worked to boost turnout in these communities. But the in-person events that were at the heart of these efforts have been put on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, said Tim Scott, elections director for Multnomah County.
Some outreach has moved online, Scott said.
"One specific example was the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference," he said. "They decided to hold it virtually this year. They asked us to participate as a presenter. And so we held a class on 'Voting is Habit Forming,' and we had 50 people attend."
Still, Scott said, virtual events are not ideal.
“What we’ve learned over time is that people are most comfortable when they are speaking or interacting with someone who speaks their language or looks like them, and that in-person sort of warmth and feeling is not something that we can duplicate in these times,” he said.
That's one reason the Multnomah County Elections Division continues to offer in-person voter assistance at offices in Gresham and Southeast Portland, Scott said. "If people would prefer to get service in person, we have that available — just using the physical distancing standards that have been in place throughout this situation."
Listen to the full conversation by clicking play on the audio player at the top of this story.