During an unprecedented and uncertain time, Oregon’s vote-by-mail election was as steady, secure and familiar as ever for the hundreds of thousands of registered voters who cast ballots in time for the May 19 Primary Election.
For the first time in Oregon’s 20-year vote-by-mail history, the election was conducted in the midst of a pandemic. But while COVID-19 brought distinct differences this year, voters made use of the same options for their ballots that they’ve always had: mailing it in or dropping it off, albeit while maintaining physical distance from others.
“We saw a large number of voters return their ballots by mail. And when it was too late to mail ballots, we also saw a steady flow of ballots being dropped off,” said Tim Scott, director of Multnomah County Elections. “These are the core functions of the vote-by-mail system that make it so effective.”
Oregon’s long-successful vote-by-mail system garnered national attention this year, as local and national news crews came to Elections’ Southeast Portland office to watch the process unfold. Hand sanitizer, gloves and masks were sprinkled throughout the building. Taped markings on the floor denoted six feet of distance. Regular cleanings and breaks were provided to staff. Officials even spread their work into new spaces throughout the building.
One hundred fewer temporary workers were called in to process ballots this cycle to help Elections adhere to physical distancing standards.
“Many of the long-time on-call workers who typically work during the election are in high-risk categories,” said Scott, “and opted out this cycle.”
Instead, employees from other parts of Multnomah County, including from its temporarily shuttered libraries, showed up to help. And well ahead of the election, officials re-imagined and adjusted their time-tested processes — from ballot pick-up to sorting, signature verification, ballot opening and finally tabulation. This year, the Library's 24-hour book drops served as ballot drop sites.
“We worked hard ahead of the election to anticipate how our processes could be impacted,” said Scott. “And we looked for ways to expedite and improve practices while adhering to physical distancing measures established by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Voter turnout reached more than 40 percent as of 8 p.m. Tuesday — short of historic turnout records, but still competitive with recent primary elections.
Results from roughly 50 to 60 percent of the expected total number of ballots cast were reported at 8 p.m. thanks to pre-processing work that began seven days before Election Day. But results thereafter will be slower than usual to report because of reduced staffing.
Voter turnout, elections officials noted, will also rise as ballot processing continues.
“We did not have the long lines at our elections offices, certainly not like you might see in other places. Overall, there were fewer people who showed up at the Elections Office seeking services such as replacement ballots or other services,” Scott said. “But those who did show up were greeted by election workers whose role was to ensure voters could maintain the appropriate distance inside the elections office.”
As always, the election will still be certified 20 days after the election on Monday, June 8. In the meantime, updates will be posted on mcelections.org.
“Many Oregon voters understood the changes and challenges this election cycle,” Scott said. “They understood the importance of mailing ballots back before the mailing deadline and dropping off ballots at drop sites. They understood the importance of going to trusted sources of information such as the County and State elections websites."
“Our goal for the next election is to continue on that path of informing voters about the important dates and services available for the election. And we’re lucky, because so many voters already know it.”