How does Oregon work to keep elections fair and secure?

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Election Day is on November 8 — but since Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, many people have probably already sent in their ballots. A number of KGW viewers wrote in to ask what happens next; how do we know our votes are handled and counted properly? We got answers from an expert, Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott.

The questions below are ones we received from viewers, followed by answers from Scott where applicable.

How are ballot boxes protected from people stuffing the boxes? Are they watched by security?

“Every ballot envelope is mailed with a unique ballot ID and barcode,” said Scott. “If the ballot envelope doesn’t contain those features, we will not process the ballot inside. If someone requests a replacement ballot and has two ballots in their possession, only the most recently issued ballot ID is valid, the other one is made invalid at the time of generating the replacement ballot.”

Sometimes seeing the process can help explain how it works. Last week, KGW toured the Multnomah County election headquarters. Scott showed our crew a large sorting machine that handles ballots.

Scott said that election workers used to do the sorting, but COVID-19 made that impossible. Federal tax money paid for the $275,000 sorting machine, which now does the job of 24 people.

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The machine is doing several things simultaneously, Scott said. It’s scanning the bar code on the ballot envelope and determining what to do next.

“That bar code is the unique identifier for this envelope. So this envelope is uniquely identified by the ballot ID. No one else in this election is gonna get that identification number,” Scott said. “And that pairs up with the voter. So we know when we scan this ballot, this bar code, we know that voter has returned a ballot. And if that bar code isn’t readable or it isn’t a bar code that’s eligible for this election it’s gonna get kicked out into the — bin number one. That’s where all the rejects go.”

Rejections can happen for a few reasons, Scott said. Perhaps a voter used an envelope from a past election, or they forgot to sign the outside of the envelope. Most of the time, election officials are able to contact the voter and get the problem corrected.

As a result of this system, stuffing the ballot box is not in the cards. Each ballot is associated with a bar code, and a fake ballot with a made-up bar code would be rejected by the machine. Everyone gets one vote.

Scott said that if a voter has a ballot at home but requested a second one because they lost the first, a new one is sent out. But at the same instant, the first ballot is canceled and will be rejected by the sorting machine.

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