ELECTION 2020: Oregon’s law enforcement agencies brace for trouble as voting ends

Access is restricted to to key rooms at the Malheur County Courthouse in Vale where ballots are stored and processed by the Malheur County Clerk’s Office in Vale. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Law enforcement officials in Oregon are prepared for trouble flowing from an election that has been put under suspicion by the president the United States.

They are uncertain how Oregonians will respond to the presidential results – whether announced election night or in subsequent days.

The officials said in interviews last week they are anticipating a repeat of the violence that marked downtown Portland for months, triggered in some instances by deliberate provocations from extremists.

President Donald Trump for weeks has spread doubt whether the vote results in the presidential race will be legitimate.

“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” he said at one point, telling supporters later that voting is being “rigged.”

Oregon officials have emphasized repeatedly that there has been virtually no fraud in the 20 years Oregonians have relied on vote by mail.

Gov. Kate Brown and other Oregon leaders signed on to a statement warning that some groups are likely to exploit the election.

“These groups preach fear and division, seize on civil unrest and chaos to recruit and build power, and promote violence. They see Election Day as their next great organizing opportunity,” said the statement, issued through the Western States Center, a nonprofit working on racial and economic justice issues.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who signed the statement, last month established the Voter Protection Hotline (971-673-4111). Callers can report voter intimidation or harassment and otherwise get election-related questions answered.

Superintendent Terri Davie of the Oregon State Police said troopers across the state are on alert to deploy. They have added fire-resistant gear to their kits to protect against flaming projectiles like those used in earlier protests.

Renn Cannon, special agent in charge of the Portland FBI office, said the agency again will operate a national command post to monitor election matters. In Oregon, his office is working closely with other federal agencies and local police forces to be ready.

“The main concern that I can see is if people lose faith in the election and therefore think they have to take some sort of extra action,” Cannon said. “It’s important for everybody to remember where the lines are in the heat of the moment.”

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said law enforcement agencies are “very much engaged in planning and getting ready for anything that goes awry on election evening and the days to follow.”

Williams said Portland’s violent summer portends similar threats tied to the election.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” Williams said.

Federal and state officials say they are on alert to detect voter intimidation or illegal suppression efforts. Because Oregon votes by mail, they say such tactics generally aren’t an issue locally as they have been elsewhere in the country.

“We’ve seen none of that,” Williams said.

An assistant U.S. attorney in his office, Austin Rice-Stitt, is the district election officer, responsible for complaints of election fraud or voting rights issues. So far, only a handful of complaints have come in, some rumors that can’t be investigated. Oregonians can directly report concerns to Rice-Stitt at 503-789-4928.

Rosenblum said she established the voter hotline when she realized the state didn’t have a central way for people to report concerns. She noted the Justice Department is experienced with hotlines for other topics, such as consumer fraud and bias crimes.

She said it became apparent as distrust in the election bloomed across the country that “it’s all hands on deck” to mitigate fraud or other distortions of the election.

“Let’s make sure that people who have concerns can get answers,” Rosenblum said.

By last week, the hotline has handled 90 calls, most seeking information on the voting process. She said one report came in about someone videotaping voters as they dropped off ballots at a drop box.

Michael Slauson, chief counsel in Rosenblum’s Criminal Justice Division, said the Fusion Center within the division assesses threats and helps law enforcement anticipate scenarios. He said the agency focuses on “actual criminal activity” and doesn’t generally collect political or social intelligence.

“Law enforcement across the state is preparing that there could be some more unrest” related to the elections, Slauson said.

He said agencies gather in a group called TIGER – Threat Information Gathering and Election Resources – to “think collaboratively” about the “potential threats to the election.”

Rosenblum said her office is preparing for both violence and potential legal threats to the election.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Law enforcement officials broadly are watching for fallout from two developments – that election results in the presidential race are delayed and that partisans are unhappy with the results, whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins the White House.

“We’re very much aware that there could be greater unrest the night of Nov. 3,” Rosenblum said. “If we don’t get results quickly, it could escalate.”

“Just because the election may be delayed because the count has to be considered doesn’t mean the election is not legitimate,” Cannon said. “Actually, it means it’s more legitimate, that we taking the time to get the process right.”

Williams said “there may be partisan responses to results even though they aren’t official yet.”

Cannon said demonstrations could form around disappointment in the election results and protests “grow into a clash between opposing viewpoints. That’s a potential of concern.”

Williams and Davie are heeding the experiences from Portland’s summer of violent protests.

Davie noted that in Portland what often started out as peaceful demonstrations devolved into “violent opportunities – trying to burn down buildings, assaulting police officers, assaulting the media.”

She said police detected some of the summer violence was orchestrated.

“It’s not all sporadic, spur-of-the-moment,” Davie said.

Williams said extreme factions on both the left and the right have arrived at protests armed. He said he anticipates that the concerns over the election could be used to provoke violence.

“There is a strong likelihood that if there is a delay in the results, part of what we’ll be dealing with is the reaction by certain groups to suggest something inappropriate, something wrong with the system,” Williams said. “They will use that to agitate people into violent conduct.”

He said he worries that some will exploit the election as they did social justice protests to “hijack” the moment.

While Portland has been the venue for the most violent clashes, demonstrations developed off and on over the summer in Salem, Eugene, Medford and Bend. Fights and assaults were reported at some.

Law enforcement officials say such areas aren’t immune from potential trouble on Election Day or later.

“We have to be prepared for any type of activity anywhere in the state,” Davie said. “We could be called in to a small eastern Oregon city or some place in southern Oregon. We just do not know where the need for troopers will emerge.”

In Portland, Williams and his team of federal prosecutors have been aggressive in charging protesters for arson, assaulting federal officers and other federal crimes. To date, federal prosecutors have charged more than 100 people.

Williams said he’s ready again to “very seriously” consider charging those who engage in violence over the election. He said “this nonsense” of throwing rocks, bottles, human waste and Molotov cocktails in the guise of free speech won’t be tolerated.

“We will protect law enforcement officers,” Williams said. “I have been very clear about that. That will never be condoned or excused because they are upset or angry.”

Cannon said demonstrators considering illegal conduct should know the FBI will be ready.

“They will be investigated. It may take a while,” Cannon said.

He said Oregonians and other voters should feel assured votes will be counted – and properly.

“If it takes a few extra days to count them, here in Oregon or elsewhere, doesn’t mean the election has been hijacked and stolen,” Cannon said. “Everyone should take a deep breath and stay calm.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].


VOTING VITALS: Updated count on ballot returns in Malheur County and key voting information

YOU CAN HELP KEEP LOCAL NEWS FLOWING: Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE – $5 a month, automatically. DONATE – to provide additional support.