Oregon Votes: FAQs on Vote by Mail and How to Track Results

The following is the updated version of a FAQ guide I published before OR's primary in May talking about how Oregon's Vote by Mail system works.  In addition, I have added information on how to interpret Oregon's results on election night.

Cross-Posted from Daily Kos: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/10/20 /12923/777/307/636329

The following is a combination of basic facts about Oregon's election process and how to track results:

Q: So when did this whole Vote by Mail thing start?
A: Vote by Mail became law in 1998 as the result of the passage of an initiative backed by former SOS Phil Keisling (D).  However, what really spurred this development were two factors.  First, the 1990s had seen a steady but substantial increase in the number of people voting by mail with somewhere between a quarter and a half of all ballots being cast that way.  Second, when Senator Bob Packwood (R) resigned due to allegations of sexual misconduct in 1995, the state decided that, in order to conduct a fairly quick special election to fill this vacancy, they would do it entirely by mail.

Q: Does it make a difference in turnout?
A: Yes, it does.  Oregon has always been a high turnout state, turnout in the 1996 general election was 71%, but it has gone up since vote by mail became law.  Turnout in the general election since its passage has been 80% (2000), 69% (2002), 86% (2004) and 71% (2006).

Q: So how does this process actually work, how do you vote?
A: I'm glad you asked.  Here is my summary (mostly copied from my Friday diary btw):

1. Register to vote at least 21 days before an election.  A bit restrictive I know but it is what it is.

2. Receive Voters' Pamphlets for primary and general elections somewhere around 2-3 weeks to as much as a month before the election, containing the normal candidate entries, arguments on ballot initiatives, etc.  This information is also available online at: http://www.sos.state.or.us/elections/may 202008/guide/cover.html

3. Receive a ballot about 2-2.5 weeks before an election.  The ballot comes inside an outer envelope which contains a return envelope and a "secrecy envelope" (more on that later) along with a pamphlet detailing basics about the ballot initiatives if any are on the ballot for that election.  

4. Fill out your ballot (a sample from Multnomah County showing the candidates for all districts in the county is seen here (an actual ballot only contains the races you are actually voting on): 2008 General Election Sample Ballot either at home, at a booth at the County elections office or anywhere else you wish.

5. Seal the ballot inside the secrecy envelope and then seal that inside the return envelope.  Sign the return envelope.

6. Either mail it in (proper postage must be attached) (before Friday only since ballots must be received by election day) or drop it off at any of your county's drop boxes by 8 PM on election day (Multnomah County's List of Drop Boxes is provided here: Multnomah County Official Drop Sites.

7. The signature on your return envelope is then checked and compared with the one in the registration database.  If it matches they open the return envelope (storing it separately) and the ballot inside its secrecy envelope is placed on a tray to be counted.  

8. The fact that you have voted is registered and political parties/other interested groups can check the list so they know who still should be targeted.  The upside of this is that once you vote you stop getting campaign calls, mail, canvassers, etc.

Q: So how are ballots counted?
A: As follows:

1. When a ballot is received, it is scanned and compared with that on file either by computer or by hand.  In either case, a pollworker monitors the process to check all signatures.

  1. After being verified, all ballots are separated into precinct batches (the coding for that is on the outer envelope).
  2. Beginning a week before the election (ballot deadline date), opening boards (groups of 2-4 people from different political parties) open the return envelopes and separate the secrecy envelope from the return envelope (to assure a secret vote).  The return envelope is set aside to serve as the official register of who voted.  Ballots are always monitored to ensure that they are not lost or tampered with.
  3. The secrecy envelope is then opened and ballots are taken out, straightened and inspected for irregularities, then sorted into sealed boxes (again by precinct) to wait for election day.
  4. In preparation for election day, the crews test all the optical scanning equipment (they also test it on election day before any ballot is counted) to make sure it is working properly.
  5. Starting as early as 12:01 AM on election day (although most, if not all counties start later) counties may start feeding the ballots into the optical scanners to tabulate results.  The first results are released at 8 PM and counting continues until all ballots are counted.  The ballots are always kept so that they can be used to facilitate any necessary recount.  This entire process is observed by a neutral observer board, consisting of equal numbers of Ds and Rs (usually 2-5 of each).

Q: So how is security ensured and have there been any incidents of fraud under this system?
A: Security is ensured because paper ballots mean that we can always go back and check the results.  Also, the ballots are quite easy to understand and fill out.  As to fraud, there has not been a single significant incident of fraud since the system was put into place (and trust me there are many interest groups that would love to find such examples).  In addition, Oregon's open government laws, some of the strongest in the nation, make it easier for almost all election records to be examined by any interested citizen.

Q: But there are some problems right?
A: Yup.  Not many but two in particular.  First, the software they use to tabulate the results is not open source software.  Second, the auditing procedures required to ensure the results reported are correct are good but could be better.  Still, most voting advocates recognize that Oregon has one of the best systems in the country.

Q: How do I track results?
A: Oregon's SOS will have a results page but the link is not available yet.  The best alternates are:

The Oregonian (Statewide Newspaper of record): (http://www.oregonlive.com/)
KGW (NBC affiliate in Portland): (http://www.kgw.com/).

Q: How long will we have to wait for results and will there be exit polling?
A: Results will typically be released on the following schedule (all times Pacific):

8 PM-Ballots due, Multnomah County releases its first count (ballots cast before Monday night), expect this result to be skewed in Obama's favor.
9-9:30 PM-Major counting completed of ballots cast prior to Monday/Tuesday in most counties.  Results are typically updated every 30-60 minutes.
11 PM-Most results apparent.  If the margin is 3% or less we may have to wait overnight but anything more than that they'll have called it by now.
12 PM Wednesday-Count completed typically by this time.

Exit polling is conducted by calling those who have already voted as well as those who have not voted but can be expected to vote.  It actually tends to be more accurate as a result since they can base their sample off those who have indeed voted rather than a random sample.r.

Q: What are the key counties?
A: The following are the seven largest counties in the state:

Multnomah (Portland, all the way east to Mt. Hood): 422,000 registered voters.
Washington (Suburban, tech-heavy and agricultural): 267,000 registered voters.
Clackamas (Suburban and agricultural, fastest-growing urban county in the state): 220,000 registered voters.
Lane (Eugene, Springfield and other assorted communities, mix of urban, suburban and rural): 205,000 registered voters.
Marion (Salem (OR's capital), mix of assorted industries/communities): 148,000 registered voters.
Jackson (Medford, Ashland, the largest R leaning county in the state): 119,000 registered voters.
Deschutes (Bend and Central Oregon, one of the most beautiful places in the state): 92,000 registered voters.

So that's it.  Let me know any questions or comments you have.

Tags: 2008 elections, Oregon (all tags)

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by skywaker9 2008-10-20 08:24AM | 0 recs

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