Gayle Trotter, Malheur County clerk, explains how a team of four workers will work in the room normally used by county commissioners to inspect voter ballots before they are scanned in and counted. The workers represent both major political parties. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

VALE – Gayle Trotter is all about lists to guard against error or fraud in Malheur County’s elections work.

The Malheur County clerk, responsible for processing local ballots, tracks the number of ballots delivered each day from the U.S. Postal Service.

She keeps count of every ballot reviewed for signatures.

Her staff counts every envelope opened, every ballot rejected, and every ballot inspected.

The 2020 general election reaches its finale next Tuesday, though election experts say the results of the presidential election may be unclear for days. That’s because while Oregon is practiced in the mail voting process, many other states are relying more on mail balloting for the first time.

State and federal officials in Oregon say they are on guard for voter intimidation and any hint of election fraud or manipulation. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has put in place a voter hotline and Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams announced the appointment of a federal election officer to handle complaints of fraud or intimidation.

Voters across the state are returning ballots at a record pace, and that’s no different in Malheur County. As of Monday, 38.1% of registered voters had already turned in their ballots.

Each ballot goes through multiple steps and hands once it gets to Trotter’s office. Here are the steps, as Trotter explained in an interview with the Enterprise:

Ballot count and sort:

Ballots received through the mail or from ballot drop boxes are sorted into trays by voting precinct. There are 24 precincts in Malheur County.

Karen Pugh works her way envelope by envelope on Thursday, Oct. 22, comparing a voter's signature on the ballot return with the electronic record at the Malheur County Clerk's Office. If signatures don't match, voters are contacted by mail by Clerk Gayle Trotter's office. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Signature verification:

A worker scans the bar code on the outside of the envelope. The bar code automatically ties to a voter’s registration, pulling up their digital record on a computer screen. The worker compares the signature on the envelope with that on the screen. The process takes just seconds.

If a signature doesn’t seem to match, the worker sets it aside. Trotter and sometimes one other worker in the clerk’s office will give the signature a second look. If they decide they don’t match, the clerk’s office sets aside the envelope and sends a letter to the voter to seek a new signature.

Trotter explained that signatures can vary for innocent reasons – a voter injured their writing hand, or hasn’t updated the registration in decades. As Election Day draws nearer, she said, voters seem to get in a hurry and too hastily scrawl signatures in a way that isn’t their typical. She urged them to slow down and sign as they normally would.

She said only a voter’s signature counts. She said spouses or other relatives can’t sign the envelope and powers of attorney don’t work either. Such mistakes mean the ballot inside is rejected and won’t be counted.

Locked boxes organized by voting precinct are used to shuttle ballots to various stations at the Malheur County Courthouse for processing by the Malheur County Clerk's Office. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Ballots boxed:

Once signatures are verified, all the envelopes are gathered into the first batch of ballots that will be processed. The envelopes are counted, a log sheet lists the precinct and the number of envelopes and they then go into gray boxes, locked and stored to await the next step.

Envelopes opened:

The gray boxes are moved through the courthouse to a conference room for work by four people who serve on what is called the Extraction Board. Working one precinct at a time, the workers open each envelope, and then open the secrecy envelope if there is one. That work will start on Thursday.

Sometimes the envelopes are empty. Sometimes they contain two ballots. In that instance, the ballots are both rejected because only one ballot is allowed per envelope. The Extraction Board keeps meticulous record, keeping a count of ballots and of envelopes and recording each instance where a ballot is rejected.

The ballots are unfolded, flattened, and then returned to the gray precinct box, and once again locked.

Ballots returned early by Malheur County voters await processing at the Malheur County Clerk's Office in Vale. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Ballot inspections:

One precinct box at a time, the ballots are moved across the courthouse to the room normally used for meetings of the Malheur County Court. Here, a four-person Inspection Board goes to work. Working in teams of two, the inspectors check ballots to be sure they are properly marked. They also check to see the ballot is in a condition to be read by the ballot scanning machine.

That can mean, Trotter said, that the inspection team will produce a duplicate ballot in those instances where someone has spilled coffee on their ballot or circled candidate names instead of filling in the bubble. Each duplicate ballot is tracked. The inspection team typically includes people registered in both major parties.

The ballot scanning machine at the Malheur County Clerk's Office undergoes testing on Thursday, Oct. 22. The new machine isn't connected to any outside internet, phones or Wifi. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Ballot scanning:

Once inspected, ballots are locked back into the precinct box and taken to the counting room, where they will be secured. A video camera in this room and other key locations of the balloting process record 24 hours a day, Trotter said.

On Monday, Nov. 2, a two-person Machine Board will start scanning the first group of ballots. Trotter said the county obtained a new ballot scanning machine this year. She said the only connection off the machine is for power. There is no internet or outside connection at all, she said, so there is no chance for outside meddling.

Ballot drop boxes:

On a daily basis, the county is gathering ballots left in drop boxes in Vale, Nyssa and Ontario. On Election Day, workers will be posted at all drop boxes. If there is a line of people waiting to deposit their ballots, the workers will step behind the last person in line at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The drop boxes will be closed, the last ballots emptied into lock boxes, and the last trip to the courthouse for the election. In Jordan Valley, a deputy from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office will make the 90-minute run to Vale to bring in the last ballots from there.

Jane Luther of the Malheur County Clerk's Office cleans the ballot scanning machine on Thursday, Oct. 22. The new machine isn't connected to any outside internet, phones or Wifi. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Results:

At about 9 p.m. on Election Day, Trotter will print out a report from the ballot machine with the results of ballots from the first group tabulated. She will manually post the results to her department’s website. She said an update from a second run of ballots usually happens about 10 p.m. and then the third run of ballots, including those from the last pick up at drop boxes, will come sometime after midnight.

Trotter said the work doesn’t stop until all three groups of ballots have been processed and the results posted.

Access is restricted 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)

Observers:

Oregon law allows citizens to watch any part of the ballot counting process. Because of the pandemic, Trotter said, the number of observers will be limited.

Observers must sign an oath that they will not talk to election workers and won’t record or photograph the work. Trotter said observers would have to be in the courthouse by 8 p.m. on Election Day. She personally escorts them to the part of the process they want to watch.

To prepare to be an observer, citizens can call Trotter’s office at 541-473-5151.

Election security:

A team from the federal Department of Homeland Security visited Malheur County to assess potential security risks. As a result, outdoor garbage cans have been removed and a contractor last week was finishing the installation of special security film on all exterior windows on rooms used during the vote counting process. The film is designed to keep someone from breaking into the building by shattering the windows.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected]

RELATED STORIES:

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

The journey of a mail-in ballot begins in central Oregon, crosses Malheur County and goes into Idaho before it arrives in the local mail box. The system proved to be flexible and reliable since Oregon adopted vote-by-mail.

ELECTION 2020: Ontario's Bentz takes nothing for granted in Congressional race

Ontario attorney Cliff Bentz, former state legislator for the region, has far outpaced his opponent, Democrat Alex Spenser, in the quest for campaign funds. He's still hitting the campaign trail hard, and connecting with supporters.

Filings show PACs put their bucks into legislative incumbents in Malheur County

ELECTION 2020: Oregon spending reports show that political action committees are putting big bucks into the campaigns of state Sen. Lynn Findley and Rep. Mark Owens, incumbents in districts that include Malheur County. Meanwhile challengers Beth Spell and Carina Miller rely on smaller individual contributions to fuel their campaigns. 

Ballots go out to record voter tally in Malheur County

ELECTION 2020: Local officials are predicting a record turnout for the Nov. 3 election, as Malheur County voters help elect a president and also decide key local races for county commissioner and sheriff.

GET YOUR LOCAL NEWS FROM REAL PROFESSIONALS: 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.