Malheur county clerk’s office flags common errors voters make that get ballots rejected

Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter checks a box of ballots at the county courthouse last week. Voters are encouraged to contact the clerk’s office if they have questions about the voting process. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Malheur County voters can take steps to ensure they don’t make mistakes that would get their ballot tossed in the approaching general election.

While Oregon has long experience with mail voting, such balloting has come into question as part of a national controversy over such voting.

President Donald Trump and his supporters assert fraud could be widespread with such a system. The president recently tweeted that results from the Nov. 3 election “may never be accurately determined” because of mail-in voting. Attorney General William Barr has suggested foreign governments could manufacture fraudulent ballots to flow into the voting system.

Oregon adopted a mail-in ballot system in 1998 and encountered relatively few problems over the years, election officials say, including Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican.

Gayle Trotter, the Malheur County county clerk responsible for processing ballots locally, said voters should take care to follow directions when balloting.

“Read the instructions that comes with the ballot. If you make a mistake, destroy or damage the ballot and contact our office. Don’t just do your own thing. Call us,” said Trotter.

During an election, the Malheur County Clerk’s Office deploys a tiered system of checks.

Ballots must pass muster before a verification board, an extraction board and an inspection board.

The verification board – usually one or two people – checks the signatures on the ballots.

The next stop for the ballot is the extraction board.

The extraction board opens and removes the contents of the ballot.

Next up is the inspection board where election board volunteer workers check the ballot to make sure the “voter did what they were instructed and the machine can read the ballot correctly,” said Trotter.

After that, said Trotter, the ballot is fed into a vote-counting machine.

When a ballot arrives at the clerk’s office it can be rejected for several reasons, said Trotter.

Election board workers may be unable to verify a signature.

Signature verification issues are the most common with ballots, said Trotter.

Trotter said election board workers compare signatures on the ballot to a voter registration card. Sometimes, she said, the signatures do not match because one signature is printed and the other is not.

“We are looking at style,” said Trotter. “We know signatures can change over time. Sometimes we have an original card from 1970 and their signature maintained the same style for the past 40 years and now it is suddenly shaky. That tells us something has happened,” said Trotter.

Trotter said then the clerk’s office will ask for an updated signature.

“Signatures do change as we get older. We understand that,” said Trotter.

Trotter also said someone other than the voter can’t sign the ballot.

“That is not allowed,” said Trotter.

If the signature on a ballot can’t be verified that doesn’t mean it is automatically voided, said Trotter.

“We give people an option to fix it,” said Trotter.

 That means, she said, the clerk’s office will send the voter a letter that informs them the signatures didn’t match.

“They then have up to a possible 14 days after the election to cure that. The letter we send them will include a voter registration card that they need to fill out and sign,” said Trotter.

Trotter said if the voter gets the ballot back to the clerk’s office within the 14-day window, and if their signature on the registration card matches the one on the ballot, the clerk’s office will then accept that ballot.

“If it (the signature) doesn’t match, at that point it isn’t accepted and we will not count it,” said Trotter.

Non-verified ballots are not thrown away, said Trotter. Instead, the clerk’s office stores those ballots for two years before they are disposed.

Trotter said in the last general election about 199 ballots were challenged. Out of those 199, 124 “did not answer us,” said Trotter.

Another common mistake, said Trotter, is ballots will arrive in the wrong envelope.

 “We have received envelopes from the May 2019 election during the May 2020 election. The ballot I.D. number for that ballot is no longer valid. Each ballot I.D. number is unique to that person and that election,” said Trotter.

The clerk’s office won’t process ballots that arrive without an envelope. Two different ballots stuffed into the same envelope also won’t accepted, said Trotter. If a ballot arrives in just the white secrecy envelope it is not accepted.

“The green return envelope, that must be signed and that isn’t optional. They must sign,” said Trotter.

The inspection board will check the physical condition of the ballot to ensure the voting machine can read it, said Trotter.

“The board will either ‘enhance’ the ballot to make it machine readable or ‘duplicate’ the votes to a new ballot so that the machine can read it,” said Trotter.

While Trotter touted reading directions as one of the best steps to avoid ballot rejection, she also said voters should ensure their signatures on their voter registration card and the ballot match.

Trotter said if the clerk’s office does send a voter a letter notifying them their ballot was not accepted they should respond.

“We can’t count it if we can’t verify it,” said Trotter.

Trotter said the key suggestion she has for voters is to communicate with the clerk’s office.

“It all boils down to talk to us,” said Trotter.

Local ballots are set to be mailed out between Oct. 14 and Oct. 20 while military and overseas absentee voter ballots were mailed out last week.

Out-of-state absentee ballots will be mailed Oct. 5.

Ballots must be returned no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3. That means the ballots must be mailed no later than Tuesday, Oct. 27. Voters can also use one of the county’s official drop boxes.

Drop boxes are in Vale, Ontario, Nyssa and Jordan Valley.

The drop box in Vale is at the corner of B Street and Bryant Street. In Ontario, the drop box is at the Ontario Community Library at 388 S.W. 2nd Ave. In Nyssa voters can find a drop box at the Nyssa City Library at 319 Main St.

The Jordan Valley drop box is at Yturri Boulevard across from the post office.

The last day for new Oregon voters to register to vote for the Nov. 3 election is Tuesday, Oct. 13.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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