ELECTION 2020: Ballots take long road from the county clerk’s office to the kitchen table and back again

Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter recommends voters read the directions on and inside their ballots when they vote. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – The life of a Malheur County voting ballot starts in central Oregon inside a printing house and eventually meanders across open desert steppe and a state line before it arrives on the local kitchen table.

The journey of a ballot – from its creation to its arrival at the county clerk’s office – is a mundane one but its path evolved into a political flashpoint issue as the presidential election heats up.

President Donald Trump cast doubt on the reliability of the upcoming national election and voiced alarm about fraud with mail-in ballots.

“We want to make sure the election is honest and I am not sure it can be,” Trump said in September.

Postal changes reversed

The reliability of the postal service became a focus in September when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock filed a lawsuit against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the U.S. Postal Service. Bullock asserted postal service changes – introduced in June – hampered mail service in Montana, causing delays which could impact the November election. The changes included reduced hours, removal of mail sorting machines and the closure of some mail processing facilities.

Last week, a day ahead of a hearing on the case in the U.S. District Court in Great Falls, the U.S. Postal Service agreed to reverse all the changes.

Before a ballot is born, state city and county officials must complete several steps, according to Gayle Trotter, Malheur County clerk who is responsible for administering local elections.

Each public entity must submit what is known as a certification to the Malheur County Clerk’s Office. The certification deadline changes each election based on the date of the election. This year the deadline was Sept. 3. A certification is a notification of what measures and candidates will be on the ballot.

Those certifications are compiled into a draft of the ballot, which is then sent off to the printer.

The county uses a printing company in Bend, said Trotter. The printing company creates a proof of the ballot and sends it back to the clerk’s office.

Proofs checked

Trotter said the clerk’s office usually approves the proof in about a week and then returns it to the printing company with a print order. The company then prints out ballots to match the number of registered voters in the county.

The company also prints out a small number of extra ballots to be used to replace damaged or lost ballots.

After the ballots are printed they are shipped to the clerk’s office where they sit until they are shipped to the Vale Post Office.

At the post office, the ballots, treated as first-class mail, are sorted and shipped to a postal service processing center in Boise. There the ballots are sorted a second time, separated from other first-class mail, and then shipped back to post offices in Malheur County.

“They are broken down by zip code. They are actually pretty easy to sort,” said Ernie Swanson, communication specialist for the Postal Service.

Ballots won’t be forwarded to new addresses, which means if a local resident has moved but not updated their voter registration, they won’t get a ballot.

Once the ballot hits the kitchen table it is up to the individual voter. 

Read the directions

The key at that point, said Trotter, is to read the directions on the ballot and inside the ballot on a colored sheet of paper.

If a voter makes a mistake or the ballot is destroyed or damaged, Trotter said residents should call her office. Common mistakes, which occur every election, include not signing the ballot envelope or a signature on the ballot that doesn’t match the signature on a voter registration card, said Trotter. Once a resident is finished with the ballot, they can place it in their mailbox to be picked up or drop it at a local post office. The postage on the ballots is paid by the state.

The ballot then travels to Boise a second time, is sorted and then sent to the Vale Post Office. The Vale Post Office then delivers the ballots to Trotter’s office. Voters can also place their completed ballot in one of several drop boxes scattered around the county:

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

Vale: the corner of B Street and Bryant Street.

Ontario: Ontario Community Library, 388 S.W. 2nd Ave.

Nyssa: Nyssa City Library, 319 Main St.

Jordan Valley: On Yturri Boulevard across from the post office. Trotter said the drop boxes are emptied on a regular basis. All ballots must be returned no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3. That means ballots must be mailed no later than Tuesday, Oct. 27.

“It works very well. Each state that has voting by mail is pleased with it,” said Swanson.

Mail concept spreads

This election season, California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont will send ballots to all registered voters. Most of Montana’s counties and the District of Columbia will do the same. Five other states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington state – already have established voter mail-in programs.

Oregon does not provide polling sites, but if a voter waits until the last minute – five days before the election – and can’t mail in their vote, they can go to the clerk’s office and get a ballot, said Trotter.

In such cases, the clerk’s office must confirm the voter is registered and has not voted already. Then they are handed a ballot and can step into a voting booth outside the clerk’s office, Trotter said.

Swanson said he doesn’t foresee any major problems regarding mail-in ballots and the Nov. 3 election.

“I am confident it will be just fine,” said Swanson.

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


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