Heightened concerns nationwide about voting fraud are even being expressed here in Wasco County.
“We had one man come in to today and say, ‘I’m concerned about voter fraud, can you tell me about these voters?’” said Wasco County Clerk Lisa Gambee on Tuesday.
“He was concerned about three individuals who had recently died and what was going to happen to those ballots,” she said.
Gambee can’t speak to election security anywhere else in the country, she said, but she is “absolutely 100 percent confident” about the integrity of the voting system in Oregon.
“We know when somebody’s dead and we cancel them as a voter,” she said.
The clerk’s office gets notifications from the public health department when people die, she said. A typical lag time for that might be about two weeks.
The post office will also return mail sent to deceased persons, she said.
They also check the local obituaries, she said – “part of the reason we get The Dalles Chronicle.”
Even if someone got a hold of a deceased person’s ballot and decided to be “sneaky” and fill it out, she said, the system is designed to catch it.
Gambee said each returned ballot is in a security envelope, which the voter must sign and which has a unique barcode for that voter. If a signed name doesn’t match the name connected to the barcode, or if the signature doesn’t match the signature on file at the clerk’s office for that voter, that vote would not be counted on election night, but would be researched by the clerk’s office, she said.
The barcode would also alert the clerk’s office if a voter was deceased.
As for signatures, in last May’s election, one signature looked falsified. After investigation, the clerk’s office learned the woman had broken her wrist, affecting her handwriting.
And changes in valid signature aren’t uncommon, she said, since it happens as people age or if they have a significant health issue.
Any suspected events of voter fraud are forwarded to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, she said.
“We do signature verification training and we literally have to check the signature on every single envelope that comes back to us,” Gambee said.
She cautioned anybody thinking of signing someone else’s ballot to not do it. “There are safeguards in place and it is a felony for good reason. People want safe elections and they want to make sure people can only vote once.”
Each county files a security plan with the state that covers everything from how prepared ballots are transferred to the post office, security levels around the room where the ballot tabulation machine is kept, and the fact that there is video surveillance during the processing of ballots, Gambee said.
The local system is also safe from any threats of cyber attack, since the ballot counting machine is not hooked up to the internet, she said.
She added, “There’s really not a way for a voter to vote more than one ballot, which is one of the first security concerns, and we don’t have any voting machines because it’s all by mail.”
The state does use computers with online connections. While it has not added any security measures for this election, said Molly Woon, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, “we did accept help from the Department of Homeland Security to scan and confirm that our systems are secure.”
While it is customary to think of other countries having outside visitors come monitor elections, the U.S. government has invited international observers to come monitor elections, as it did in 2012.
Gambee thought Wasco County would not merit the attention of international observers, but a group asked to come to the county and they will be here today to get a tour of the process.
“There’s definitely interest on a global scale about what is happening with elections and safety and how they’re conducted,” she said.
Before every election, there is a public test of the voting system, Gambee said. This year, it happens Nov. 2. A pre-determined count of votes will be entered into the system, to see if it comes back with the correct results.
“People are welcome to come and observe us running the ballots through the tabulator,” she said.
She said observers are welcome at any election, and they don’t have to be affiliated with a party.
It is typical for each party to send an observer, and the election board, which will work in two shifts this year in anticipation of a large increase of ballots cast, has members from both parties.
Observers have to sign a statement and agree to rules, such as not talking to the election board workers.
Some 15,600 ballots were mailed Wednesday, and turnout is expected to be 45 percent more than the 6,900 who voted in May. “Our registration is up and we had a 51 percent turnout in May.”
Turnout is expected to be much higher for this election. Even the last presidential election had an 81 percent turnout in Wasco County.
Because the turnout is expected to be so large, Gambee has hired extra people for the election board, which will total 15 people.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2 or Thursday, Nov. 3, a skeleton crew of two people will begin the process of preparing returned ballots. They work in a secure room in the courthouse.
Their task is to verify signatures and scan the barcodes on the envelopes. Then the still-unopened envelope goes into a tray corresponding with the voters’ precinct, of which there are 14 in Wasco County. The smallest is Tygh Valley, with 169 registered voters, the largest is Precinct 2 in The Dalles, with 2,500 voters.
A week later, the full board begins to pull the sorted ballots out of envelopes, flatten them, stamp them with the precinct number, and check for stray marks.
“You would be surprised how many people write notes on their ballots,” Gambee said. “I’m the county clerk, I can’t really do anything about your dissatisfaction with that candidate.”
They also check to make sure ballots aren’t ripped, and that voter intent is clear. If a ballot needs to be duplicated to make it machine-ready, that is done, and a note is made of it.
“It’s amazing how much stuff we do to ensure there are not mistakes and we don’t miss somebody voting for the person they want to vote for,” she said.
Prepared ballots that are ready for the tabulation machine are put in a sealed box in a locked room. “And the only person that has the key to that room is me,” Gambee said.
Nearly 60 percent of ballots are put in dropboxes. There’s one in the clerk’s office, one outside the courthouse on the Fifth Street side, and one at Maupin City Hall.
She said, “We call it vote by mail but it’s really vote by dropbox.”
But anyone who does mail it is encouraged to mail it by Nov. 1, just to ensure it is to the courthouse by 8 p.m. on election day. Ballots postmarked, but not delivered, by Nov. 8 are not accepted.
In May, 27 percent of ballots were returned on election day. The Rotary Club offers a popular drive-up drop box service on Fifth Street on the south side of the courthouse.
Because turnout is expected to be almost double of the May turnout, Gambee encouraged people to turn in ballots early.
Gambee goes to twice-yearly conferences with other clerks in the state. “I think the biggest sentiment at the conferences is kind of relief that we do vote by mail because honestly it cuts out so many of those potential security issues.
“We don’t have hanging chads, we don’t have ballot tallying machines that can be hacked. So, the vote by mail process is really pretty significant as far as taking out a lot of the potential avenues for threats to security of an election.”