The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners heard important updates Tuesday, April 28, 2020, on the state of elections in Multnomah County.
The primary election is swiftly approaching, and despite the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the May 19 primary will continue undeterred.
“We got this,” said Tim Scott, director of Multnomah County Elections. “Vote-by-mail is the perfect solution to administering an election while allowing people to stay physically apart. But we have had to make some changes to our processes to keep both employees and voters safe.”
Multnomah County has 545,000 registered voters, the largest number to date. That’s almost 140,000 more than eight years ago, said Scott.
While paper registrations have fallen this year, electronic registrations are up, with more than 3,000 voters registered in just the last 24 hours, he continued.
And later on April 28, two very large trucks were set to arrive at the U.S. Postal Service processing facility near Portland International Airport with enough ballots to be mailed to every registered voter starting April 29. Thanks to new state legislation, all of those ballots will also have their postage paid. “We’re strongly encouraging voters to stay home, stay safe and vote by mail using postage-paid return envelopes for the first time in Oregon election history.”
What’s changed — and what stays the same
Voters can still access services while maintaining physical distancing measures at the same election locations — the Multnomah County Duniway-Lovejoy Elections Building in Southeast Portland and the Voting Center Express in downtown Gresham. This includes voter registration (until 7 p.m. on April 28), ballot replacements, multilingual voter assistance and other in-person services.
“There were 35 visitors to our main office when we opened on Monday [April 27] and 19 to the Voting Center Express in Gresham,” Scott noted. “That’s up from zero due to office closures.”
And thanks to an ongoing partnership with the Multnomah County Library, Scott said, voters can use the 24-hour book drop at each library to safely and securely deposit ballots.
Official 24-hour ballot drop sites are also available to voters.
“But our very first option is encouraging voters to take advantage of pre-paid postage as long as they get it in the mail by May 14,” Scott said. “But if they aren’t able to meet that deadline, then use secure 24-hour drop sites or library drop sites.”
Normally, a small army of election workers would process voter registrations, answer phones, process returned ballots and more. But this year, to accommodate physical distancing requirements, 100 fewer workers will be hired than would be during other elections.
The Elections Office’s essential personnel have been practicing physical distancing, hand hygiene, wearing face coverings and regular cleanings.
“Then we re-imagined all of our time-tested election processes,” said Scott. “To build in the same best practices so that we could bring 150 additional workers and the public into the building in a safe manner.”
Working alongside Multnomah County Public Health, Information Technology, the Emergency Operations Center, and Facilities, the Elections Division has also:
Installed plexiglass at all election counters.
Established six-foot distances in public and employee spaces, with calculations made for the maximum number of employees.
Received guidance from Public Health on how election workers should handle paper ballots and envelopes.
Established partnerships with neighboring businesses to create additional space for those voters who need in-person services.
“The risk of spreading the disease on paper is low because the virus only lives for a very short time on paper,” said Scott. “[Public Health’s] recommendations for workers handling ballots are the same as for our everyday operations — good hand hygiene and cloth face coverings.”
All Elections staff have personal protective equipment such as face coverings, gloves and hand sanitizer.
Multnomah County Elections has also taken steps to help expedite and reduce reliance on staffing during the election process.
Using savings accrued by the Department of Community Services, new signature verification technology is being used to provide a reliable alternative to the many, highly trained individuals who usually perform the work. Elections is also seeking funds through the federal CARES Act for semi-automated ballot extraction machines to reduce reliance on the labor pool.
“These staffing reductions are necessary in the face of physical-distancing requirements,” said Scott. “Most of our long-time on-call workers are in high-risk categories and have opted out of working in this election.”
Staffing shortfalls are being met through partnerships with the Multnomah County Library, as well as existing labor contracts.
Election Results and #TrustedInfo2020
As always, 50 percent to 60 percent of ballots cast will be reported at 8 p.m. May 19 due to pre-processing work that always begins seven days prior to Election Day, said Scott.
“But the overnight work that we typically do on election night will be significantly reduced because of the number of staff. We will still meet our mandate of certifying the election within 20 days.”
Scott also said voters should always seek trusted sources of information for all election information. He said they should visit trustworthy websites like mcelections.org and oregonvotes.gov for accurate information.
"We’ve been promoting the #TrustedInfo2020 campaign sponsored through the National Association of Secretaries of State to encourage voters to get their information from trusted sources and avoid misinformation and disinformation," Scott said.
Regular communication alongside robust social media monitoring is paramount leading up to the election.
“We have been taking steps to combat misinformation through several channels,” Scott said.
This year, the Elections division is also implementing encrypted USB drives to transport results out of the tally room in an even more secure manner. And there is now a fire suppression system installed in every 24-hour drop box in Multnomah County.
“We have been voting by mail for 20 years,” Scott said.
“We got this.”