Can the local election be rigged?

Find out what really happens to your ballot after you drop it off

Incoming ballots are sorted and moved downstairs at the Multnomah County elections office. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)
Incoming ballots are sorted and moved downstairs at the Multnomah County elections office. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — What do you get when you mix a high-stakes election with high-profile claims of rigged votes and a generous helping of unseen processes?

A whole lot of wary, frustrated and disenfranchised voters.

So, the Portland Tribune toured the Multnomah County Elections office on Southeast 12th Avenue, looking for holes in the system or prejudice among employees.

Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott is used to the skepticism and more than willing to talk through the procedures.

“The real security is in the processes in the various areas,” he says. “No one is ever working unsupervised.”

Scott started the job in 2008. He is a political appointee — not an elected official as in Clackamas County. He is not concerned by this year’s rhetoric and says voter fraud — people intentionally casting ballots that aren’t theirs — “those cases are so rare, I probably haven’t even seen 10 in eight years.”

Asked why that might be, he shrugs.

“The true case of fraud, where someone is actually trying to maliciously vote someone else’s ballot, is exceedingly rare,” Scott says. “It’s pretty easy to get caught, too, and the penalties are very steep.”

But what about the system? Couldn’t malicious forces infiltrate there?

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Election workers sort through registrations in the ‘purple room’ of the Multnomah County Elections Office in Southeast Portland. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)

 

What happens to my ballot after I drop it off?

Teams of runners pick up ballots from library drop boxes and the main Portland U.S. Post Office in increasing frequency as Election Day approaches. A high-speed ballot sorter sorts them and takes pictures of the signature lines. A room full of elections workers look at computer screens displaying the ballot signature image next to the voter registration card signature image to see if they match. Questioned signatures go through a second (and sometimes third) round of verification.

Early ballots (more than a week prior to Election Day) wait in stacks of green bins. After Nov. 1 this year, the machines started opening the ballots. Opened envelopes are carried to tables that are each staffed by four temporary elections employees from different political parties. Those folks separate the addressed envelopes from the ballots inside, (many of them in secrecy envelopes), which are put into boxes. The boxed ballots are carried to a secure room with scanner and laptop stations.

Clear Vote software reads the ballot image, flagging any anomalies for the human operator, who also can look at all of the votes. Paired adjudicators from different political affiliations decide together the voter’s intention for any questionable marks. Results are taken via USB key from that room to other computers connected to the internet for reporting.

Everything is videotaped, with places for partisan elections monitors to sit and watch. Paper ballots are kept and numbered so that they can be traced to the voter in the rare instance that’s necessary.

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Incoming ballots are sorted and moved downstairs at the Multnomah County elections office. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)

My signature has changed a lot since I was 18. How do they know it’s still me?

“There’s certainly a maturation period that happens,” Scott acknowledges.

During the second level of verification, an elections worker has access to digital archives of pictures of past ballot signatures. Scott says it’s fairly easy for a trained worker to tell how a signature has evolved over time. The workers even have access to the signatures of people in the same household — to see if they match one of those, which would disqualify the ballot. The worker can send letters to the voter asking them to update their registration card signature or notify them that they have two weeks after Election Day to resubmit their rejected ballot.

Who are these people looking at my ballot anyway? How can I be sure they are counting them properly?

An election brings in hundreds of temporary workers screened by the county’s human resources department. Employees work in groups of mixed party affiliations. Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated, Independent, Green — everyone’s voter registration is checked after hire so they can be put in mixed groups.

“It’s pretty hard to do something to alter the course of the election when you have three people working next to you,” Scott says.

He goes on to describe an office culture that is remarkably uninteresting.

“It’s about the process and not about the politics,” he says. “Everybody checks their opinions at the door and works together very well.”

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Multnomah County elections spokesman Eric Sample talks about how digital scanners are used to count votes on ballots within the sealed room at the elections office. Data can only flow out of this room, say officials. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)

OK, so these ballots get fed into a computer. Couldn’t it get hacked to change the counts?

The banks of computer scanners are in a keycard-secured room. The computers are connected to screens where multipartisan judges adjudicate questionable ballots, but aren’t connected to anything else.

“They are isolated physically from the universe,” Scott says.

The room is sealed with concrete, with one wall of windows where elections observers watch the workers.

Tamper-evident seals are put on the ports and virus-checked USB keys are used to take the reports out to the cyber-connected world.

“Data only flows one way and that’s out,” Scott says.

Why does it take so long to get results in Multnomah County?

Sheer volume. About 400,000 ballots get cast, many of them on the last day.

“The reality is it’s very tedious, and we’re just trying to plug through all the tens of thousands of ballots on Election Day,” Scott says. “It’s like turning an ocean liner. We’re not as agile as a smaller county.”

Employees are scheduled to work 12-hour shifts for three days, just in case, but typically all the ballots are counted by late Wednesday.

Where do ballots come from in the first place?

The elections office creates the ballot image and sends the PDF securely to a vendor in Bend who prints them according to an organized list of voters. The ballots can then be mailed out in order, to save money. Multnomah County employees go to the printer to monitor all this, and seal the trucks transporting them to the post office, where they are greeted by more elections monitors.

The elections office also has on-demand printers that make about 600 ballots per day for people who change their registration at the last minute or otherwise request a new ballot. Scott says there is nothing to stop someone from ordering five extra ballots, but the machine recognizes duplicates from the barcode and sends them to be checked.

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Ballots are sorted at the Multnomah County elections office. (Jonathan House/ The Portland Tribune)

I still don’t believe you.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible — anybody is welcome to come down here,” Scott says. “We have lots of room. We want people to be confident that their ballot is being counted.”

How safe is vote-by-mail?

Along with no sales tax and self-serve gas, Oregon has another beloved public policy that sets us apart from the rest of the nation.

Oregon started down the path of universal vote-by-mail in 1993, but the protocol is still mostly met with suspicion by the rest of the nation. (Colorado and Washington recently have switched to vote-by-mail and California is on its way.)

Our lack of polling places makes some observers wary, such as Jay DeLancy, director of the North Carolina-based Voter Integrity Project.

“I think it’s a horrible idea. Terrible,” DeLancy says. He says voting by mail violates all four central principles of accountable voting: assurances of who is voting, who is able to vote, who is counting the vote and how the ballots are processed. “There’s a risk of fraud that’s endemic.”

Perhaps that why a significant portion of voters wonder if Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is right.

“Washington has tried so hard to stop our campaign,” Trump has said. “The system is totally rigged and broken.”

Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins says that’s simply not true. Atkins, who was appointed in March 2015 after working for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, says the logistics involved in rigging a national election would be mind-boggling.

“Every human endeavor can have a problem with it,” Atkins says, noting rare instances of individuals committing fraud. “But the idea that there could be a coordinated enough fraud to incorporate local officials at every level all across the country is kind of beyond belief.”

Atkins says the national election system is a network of local officials of both parties with teams of workers and elections observers that would have to all be in on it. They would notice if the reported numbers didn’t match their office’s report.

“And I don’t know if we could keep that many secrets,” she says. “I think this is one case in which dispersing of responsibility works very well.”

DeLancy points out that voter registration rolls are often out of date, with millions of people nationwide registered to vote at the wrong address.

“With that many extra ballots floating around,” DeLancy says, you are just asking for trouble. “I don’t trust the post office. They are not sworn elections officers.”

Atkins acknowledges that some ballots never make it to their owners, but argues that with the state’s new motor voter law, addresses are updated automatically through any transactions with the Department of Motor Vehicles, which has cut down significantly on returned ballots.

“We rely on a pretty sophisticated voter registration system,” Atkins says. “We think our rolls are as clean as they can be.”

In Multnomah County, Elections Director Tim Scott says the returned ballot rate is about 2 to 3 percent, down from about 7 percent when he started.

But with how easy it would be to just grab some ballots that got mailed to your house and vote them without anybody watching, why aren’t there more cases of mischief?

“You’d have to forge the signature,” Atkins says, noting that the signatures are checked by trained staffers. “Is it worth taking the risk of a felony to get one extra ballot in the way you want? … The motivation for voter fraud isn’t very high, considering the penalties.”

Paul Gronke, a Reed College professor who oversees the Early Voting Information Center, a Reed academic research center, says Oregon’s system is good — but it might not neccessarily be exportable to other states.

“We rely heavily on the postal service to help maintain the integrity of our voting system,” Gronke says, arguing that the state’s strong public employees unions make it more reliable than elsewhere in the nation. “We do have a history in Oregon of pretty clean elections. It’s hard to know whether our system would work in other states.”

DeLancy still feels that polling places are the right way to go, even when, as sometimes happens, there are hours-long waits.

“People are dying and have died for your right to vote,” he said, arguing that going to a physical place at a certain time is a small price to pay for democracy.

If Oregon insists on doing vote-by-mail, DeLancy wants there to be biometric identifiers — something more than just a signature to ensure accuracy.

But DeLancy does acknowledge that voting by mail is awfully convenient. He even uses an early mail-in ballot in his state.

“Oh yeah, of course,” he says with a laugh. “I use it because it’s there.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.