County officials confident in ability to host secure elections amid Trump’s concerns of voter fraud

Vote by mail (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

Despite President Donald Trump’s concerns of widespread voter fraud through mail-in ballots in the November 2020 election, local officials have trust in Malheur County’s system and the rest of the state’s ability to keep elections secure.

Last month, Trump tweeted that the 2020 election will be the “most rigged” election in U.S. history because more people will vote with mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the opportunities for voter fraud. Oregon is one of five states that vote only by mail only.

“We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!” Trump wrote in a tweet.

However, according to Laura Fosmire, communications specialist for the Oregon Secretary of State Audits Division, 54 cases of potential fraud in 2016 were referred to law enforcement for prosecution. Of those, 22 individuals were found guilty of voting in two states, accounting for only 0.0001% of ballots cast that year.

Trump also warned that “millions” of mail-in ballots would be printed by foreign countries  and contribute to voter fraud. He tweeted that “if people can go out and protest, riot, break into stores, and create all sorts of havoc” then they can go out to vote to keep the election “honest.”

The concept of foreign countries committing voter fraud through fake mail-in ballots was something Attorney General William Barr discussed in a New York Times article published in early June.

“We’ve been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in,” said Barr. “It’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.”

But according to Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter, the contention of Trump and Barr is simply “not true.”

One of Oregon’s voter security features is requiring ballot return envelopes to be signed by the voter, according to the Oregon Elections Division. That signature is then compared to those filed as part of the individual’s voter registration, and “the ballot is only counted if the signatures match.” As of January 2020, 16,286 individuals are registered to vote in Malheur County.

“Should we receive a wrong return envelope, we will know, and it would not get processed,” said Trotter. “Should there be an incorrect ballot inside a correct envelope, our machine would reject it, if it made it past our election boards.”

Because of this process, state Rep. Mark Owens, (R-Crane), said he isn’t worried about foreign countries printing fake ballots, especially since individuals can use a secrecy envelope to ensure “nobody except the clerk would see the signature on it until it is opened.”

“If a foreign country prints more ballots and sends them out, you still only were able to get one official ballot turned in with your signature to be counted,” said Owens. “If a clerk gets a duplicate of a ballot with your signature it’ll cause a red flag, and it’ll start the process of an investigation.”

Along with signature verification, Trotter said other processes prevent voter fraud, such as verifying an individual’s citizenship with the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles — which requires proof of citizenship when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license — or Social Security number verification for individuals without an Oregon DMV number.

She said there is a 21-day cutoff for voter registration prior to an election and challenges can be made on signatures that don’t match. Any suspicious registrations are turned over to the state Elections Division to investigate.

Trotter said she doesn’t hear concerns from the community about voter fraud, but the rare times she does, once she explains the process, the individual is no longer concerned.

The lengthy process of election security begins when sending out the ballots. They are put in envelopes and “specifically addressed to each individual registered voter” by an insertion board, which consists of at least three election board workers, Trotter said.

The workers “are not all registered to vote in the same political party and have signed an official oath swearing to uphold all election laws at the courthouse [and] under the direction of the county clerk,” said Trotter.

As individuals begin to return their ballots, those “who forgot to sign their return envelopes are then sent a letter and given the opportunity to sign their return envelope so that their ballots can be counted,” she said.

During the signature verification process, if an election board worker doesn’t think the signature on the ballot envelope matches the one on the individual’s voter registration, it is sent to the election staff for another look, Trotter said.

“The election staff then look at all voter registration records for that voter to try to verify the signature,” said Trotter. “If it is still not able to be verified, the voter is then sent a challenge letter asking for an updated signature on a new voter registration card.”

Ballot envelopes that have been accepted, she said, are sorted into precincts and sent to the extraction board, which begins the process of opening each envelope six days before the election.

“Once all ballots are removed from all of the envelopes, they are unfolded and all turned facing the same direction, counted for number of ballots only, and returned to the box to be sent onto the inspection board,” said Trotter.

Five days before the election, the inspection board processes ballots one precinct at a time, Trotter said, verifying “the vote tally machine can read the ballot as the voter intended.”

“The board workers inspect the ballots to make sure that there are no marks in the bar code area, no food or spills on the ballot, that the voter filled in the oval next to their selection, not circled their selection or check marked their selection or write someone in on the write-in line but forgot to complete the oval,” said Trotter.

Once the inspection process is complete, ballots are then sent to the machine board, she said. The machine board’s process begins the day before the election by running a public certification test “through the machine to test the accuracy.” After this process is finished, ballots are scanned one precinct at a time through the vote tally machine, and “all processes are repeated until all ballots are counted and final election night results are reported.”

Owens said he has watched Harney County’s clerk go through the process of validating signatures, and he can attest that it’s “a very good, robust system with many double checks.”

“I have not yet sat down with the [Malheur County] clerk, but the policies that are in place and procedures I think are a very safe way to vote and getting more people out to vote through mailing ballots is good, in my opinion,” said Owens.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, (R-Vale), said he isn’t worried about voter fraud, as “Oregon has been using vote by mail for several years,” and the Oregon Legislature recently gave more funding to postage for returning ballots.

“I have absolutely no concerns with the process as the secretary of state and county clerks have developed a very good program, and they consider election integrity paramount in all actions,” said Findley.

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]


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