Don’t fall for fearmongering. Our ballots are more secure than ever.

In the sorting room at the Multnomah County elections office, incoming ballot envelopes are placed in high speed sorters. AFSCME Local 88 member Roxanne Shive, a County Library employee helped in the May 2020 primary. (Photo by Motoya Nakamura, courtesy of Multnomah County)

By Don McIntosh

For more than six months, President Donald Trump has tried to sow doubt about mail-in voting. In tweets, mass texts, and public appearances, he’s claimed voting by mail will lead to widespread fraud; that mailboxes will be robbed, ballots will be fraudulently signed, and millions of mail-in ballots will printed by foreign countries and others; that the U.S. Postal Service, and election offices, won’t be able to handle it. There’s no evidence for any of that, and Trump hasn’t offered any.

In fact, all the while, the Trump campaign has made a major effort to get Trump supporters to vote by mail, sending them to a Trump campaign website that helps them request absentee ballots. Trump himself voted by mail this year in the Florida primary, and in 2018.

Of course, Oregonians have been voting entirely by mail since 2000, and Washingtonians since 2010. Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah followed. This year, to avoid the need for public gatherings during a pandemic, California, Nevada, Vermont, New Jersey, and DC will go all-by-mail too. The rest of the states will continue their existing combination: in-person voting at polling places, and “absentee” voting by mail. The challenge for them will be to ramp up the administrative capacity to process and count a huge surge on the mail-in side due to the pandemic. That could impact how soon results are known, but it shouldn’t change anything about the security and integrity of the results.

“All election administrators take security very seriously, and this is not a new thing,” says Tim Scott, director of the Multnomah County Elections Division. “Personally, having done both, I think vote-by-mail is a better system. Logistically it’s more streamlined, and we have more control over the processes.”

How Oregon and Washington keep vote by mail secure

  • THE VOTER FILE  When they register, voters provide their mailing address, signature, and proof of citizenship. Ballots are mailed to the address on file, and elections offices work to keep the list updated, running monthly checks with the U.S. Postal Service’s NCOA file, and sending at least two mailings a year to voters. Voters who move out of state are declared inactive and aren’t mailed a ballot. To remove deceased voters from the rolls, elections officers get weekly updates from state and county vital records, consult the Social Security death master list, and check against published obituaries. Oregon, Washington and 28 other states also collaborate in a database that identifies inaccurate and out-of-date voter records.
  • THE ENVELOPE  Oregon ballot return envelopes are printed with a unique bar code. When it’s scanned, the system knows that particular envelope has been returned. It’s not possible to cast two ballots. Voters sign the envelope containing the ballot.
  • THE SIGNATURE  Ballots don’t come out of the envelope until the signature on the return envelope is verified. The signature is scanned and compared to the signature on file, using the same software the banking industry uses for checks. If a signature fails that automated test, it’s examined by election workers who are trained by forensic handwriting specialists under the supervision of the Oregon State Police. If those workers find the signature doesn’t match, the voter is notified and has up to 14 days after the election to provide a matching signature. Forging a ballot signature is a Class C felony and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
  • THE TALLY ROOM Elections offices are secure facilities, with alarm systems and cameras inside and out. Within the office, the tally room is even more secure, and has a motion-activated security camera system. Only those with a security clearance can enter, using logged key-cards. There, election workers in pairs unfold and prepare the ballots for counting and then feed ballots into ballot counting machines that use a digital imaging system to read and tally the marks. All computers in the tally room are on a standalone network, and aren’t connected to the internet. That means they can’t be hacked remotely. Using pre-marked ballots, ballot counting machines are tested for accuracy three times before and after every election. At the end of every election, the system is audited by hand using randomly selected batches and races, and the machine counts are compared to the hand counts.

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