When the pandemic hit and states started enforcing social distancing and other restrictions, Steve Trout’s phone began ringing off the hook.
Trout is Oregon’s elections director. His counterparts in dozens of states sought his advice on how to conduct elections by mail instead of at polling places.
“It’s been crazy. I remember when this all hit back in March, a lot of states were having their primaries before ours,” Trout told me this week. “We’ve really tried to coach our peers. We know that even though we’ve been doing this for 40 years in Oregon, it’s not something that we just flipped the switch and got. We continue to fine-tune things.”
Trout quickly contacted his counterpart in Washington state — which adopted statewide vote-by-mail in 2011 — and they began hosting weekly conference calls for their fellow state elections directors. Those calls are still happening.
“I am pleasantly surprised at the progress those states have made preparing for this,” Trout said. “It’s hard to flip a switch and move from polling places to mail. There’s a lot of things that go into that, but many states took our advice right out of the gate.”
Trout, who oversees the Elections Division in the Secretary of State’s Office, said he shared lessons learned from Oregon’s vote-by-mail successes and scars. He urged his colleagues to examine how their state laws and regulations would interact with mail balloting, so as to have more clarity and less litigation.
During that first call back in March, Trout told his counterparts to contact their local and regional postal officials right away.
“You’re not going to succeed if they’re not a great partner …. I think most of the states have taken that to heart and have been working closely with their local postal officials to make them part of the team,” said Trout, who has high praise for the U.S. Postal Service in Oregon.
There also were such mundane questions as who are the ballot printers? Where do states find the special paper needed for the ballots? Early on, Trout alerted Oregon counties to promptly order all the ballot envelopes they would need this year, because their printers soon would be working non-stop for other states.
President Donald Trump and some other Republicans have promoted absentee mail ballots but disparaged regular vote-by-mail as unsecure and fraud-ridden. However, the Republican secretaries of state in Oregon and Washington vouch for vote-by mail. When Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno was interviewed on “60 Minutes” this summer, her advice was, “Try it, you might like it.”
Surveys consistently show Oregonians’ faith in mail voting, including a poll this month by Reed College’s Early Voting Information Center that was conducted in partnership with the state Elections Division. Oregonians said they had few worries about voting in the pandemic. Many thought that other states could adopt Oregon’s methods without increasing election fraud, although responses followed partisan lines.
In any case, Oregonians are turning out in record numbers. As of Thursday morning, ballots had been received from 57.5% of voters, with several counties topping 60%, led by Benton at 65.2%. At the other end of the scale, Umatilla was lowest at 46.7%.
Ballots had been received from 71% of Democratic voters, 61.7% of Republicans and 39.3% of non-affiliated voters. The turnout among smaller political parties ranged from 36.8% to 57.8%.
This high early turnout means more votes will be included in the initial results released Tuesday evening. Counties this week began verifying the ballot signatures, opening the envelopes and running the ballots through counting machines. They cannot legally tally ballots until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Even then, the counting won’t be over. Registered voters, regardless of where they live, may take their ballot to an official drop site or county elections office anywhere in Oregon. The ballots then are sent to the voters’ home counties.
Counties will notify those voters who forgot to sign their ballot or whose signature doesn’t match what is on file. Such voters will have until Nov. 17 to correct those problems. Oregon’s election results won’t become official until Dec. 3.
So far, Trout said, things are going well: “I think we’re in really good shape. I’m almost embarrassed when I get on these calls with other states. We’re really business as usual.”
Whereas his counterpart in the swing state of Wisconsin has 1,800 local jurisdictions that run elections, Trout has the 36 counties to deal with. He has been checking in on those county operations.
The other day, he arrived at the Jackson County elections office in Medford before 8 a.m. and witnessed a stream of voters depositing ballots in the drop box.
“That really lifted my spirits. That’s why we do this,” Trout said. “I had two different people in that five-minute period drive by, drop their ballot in the drop box and salute.”
What’s up with DeFazio?: In last week’s Capital Chatter, I noted that Democrat Peter DeFazio of Springfield, who represents Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, was facing his strongest challenger, Alek Skarlatos.
The story continues this week, and it’s a national phenomenon. Politico reported, “Long-tenured House Democrats from Oregon timber country to Midwest dairy land are watching their reelection races tighten even as their party presses for bigger gains in nearly every major metro area in the country.”
My indicator of whether DeFazio is in trouble is that he now is taking Skarlatos seriously after ignoring him for much of the campaign. Skarlatos’ fundraising last quarter significantly outdid DeFazio’s, and national Republican groups also jumped in. With backing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and others, DeFazio has gone on an advertising and press-release offensive.
He has been more visible, holding a campaign roundtable via Zoom on Thursday to discuss Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, appearing on state Sen. Arnie Roblan’s coastal radio program on Tuesday and joining college Democrats for get-out-the-vote phone banking.
Skarlatos, meanwhile, was trumpeting Roll Call’s latest article about the race, which said of him: “Republicans hope he’s a unicorn in what feels likely to be a dismal year for their party: He’s outraised a longtime incumbent, has star power and is running in a swing district during what is an extraordinarily turbulent time for Oregon marked by wildfires and political upheaval.”
DeFazio’s sudden campaign intensity brought back memories of Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield awakening to the threat posed by Democrat Harry Lonsdale in 1990. Hatfield won by 7.5 percentage points.
The same could happen for DeFazio. But the pandemic and the presidential race are wildcards. Will Trump supporters/leaners, knowing that the president has no chance to win Oregon, take out their anger on DeFazio? Will the difficulty of in-person organizing activities and the distraction of COVID-19 among Democratic-leaning university students alter the outcome?
No other congressional races in Oregon are considered potential tossups.
More on Helt: I remain fascinated by the twists in moderate Republican Rep. Cheri Helt’s reelection race in Bend. She announced last week that she would forgo negative campaigning and run only positive ads; she called on Democratic challenger Jason Kropf to do the same.
That was a last-minute strategy of Ron Wyden when he narrowly defeated Gordon Smith to fill Bob Packwood’s Senate seat in 1996, which we remember now because it was the nation’s first vote-by-mail election for federal office.