Submitting ballots simplified as election nears
Ballots and how they are gathered and counted has been in the news a lot lately, a fact that isn't lost on Brian Van Bergen.
In fact, the Yamhill County clerk and his staff have taken steps to assure voters that, if they do the work, their ballots will make their way to McMinnville and be properly counted in the Nov. 3 general election.
To that end, the clerk's office has upgraded a number of its popular ballot drop boxes throughout the county. In Newberg, that effort is manifested in a larger and more accessible drop box at Portland Community College's Newberg Center and the upsizing and movement of a drop box on the west side of Jaquith Park.
The third drop box in Newberg, located at the Public Safety Building on South Howard Street, has been increased in size but remains in the same location it has inhabited for years.
Changes also have been instituted to drop boxes in Amity and Carlton and installation of a larger ballot drop box on the Evans Street side of the parking lot of the clerk's office in McMinnville. That move was precipitated by the need for social distancing and an August incident where a car backed into the existing drop box.
Van Bergen said adding capacity was the primary reason for the changes to the county's ballot drop boxes, although the regular vehicle accidents and need to "make it clear that ballot drop sites are closed after 8 p.m. on election night and they shouldn't be used for paying parking tickets, water bills or other 'mail'" factored into the decision.
"Since we are so close to the next election and some of the repairs will take several weeks to complete, it is best to replace the damaged boxes while the damages are corrected so voters don't think we are removing the boxes forever," he said.
The need for more capacity is precipitated by the uptick in registered voters in Yamhill County from 50,259 voters in 2010 to 71,867 this year. Van Bergen said the increase can primarily be assigned to the state's new automated voter registration laws and is something his office keeps a close eye on.
"We continually monitor how many ballots we receive through each method and source and we've seen a steadily increased use of these ballot drop boxes," he said. In fact, he added, over the past several years 75% of ballots returned to his office are delivered via drop box, 25% by the mail. That wasn't the case in May, however, as 66% of the ballots were filed via drop sites, 34% through the mail.
"It's nearly impossible to know for sure what contributed more to this swing — the COVID pandemic or the switch to postage-paid return mail," Van Bergen said.
Also at issue is people depositing ballots too late to be counted.
"The box we currently have at the PCC campus in Newberg, like all of our drop boxes, is clearly marked for 'ballots only' and has a bar across the access door that locks the door and says 'This box closed until next election,'" Van Bergen said. "Nevertheless, some resourceful voters find ways of getting ballots squeezed passed the bar and inserted days after the election."
He explained that the new boxes "close much tighter than the current model" to prevent late ballots from being added.
Van Bergen said he understands some voters' uncertainty about elections during an unprecedented time in the country.
"Vote-by-mail is brand-new to many states across the country this year as those elections officials attempt to help voters during the pandemic," Van Bergen said. "Heightened scrutiny around vote-by-mail has caused even some Oregon voters who've been enjoying vote-by-mail for 20 years to have questions."
To address those concerns, at least locally, the clerk's office is embracing two methods that could help voters determine their voting status. First is My Vote, an application on the Oregon Secretary of State's website that allows voters to easily register to vote, update their registration or check their registration status. It also shows whether their ballot has been accepted for any current election.
Van Bergen advised voters to check their registration immediately to confirm that their name, address and party affiliation are accurate. He further suggested checking the site (oregonvotes.gov/myvote) after submitting their ballot to see if it was accepted.
The second similar system is called BallotTrax, which allows voters to be alerted via text, email or phone call that their ballot has been accepted or if there is a problem with their signature. Sign up online at yamhillcounty.ballottrax.net/voter/login#/.
"I strongly encourage all voters to check their voter registration status today," Van Bergen said. "Each voter should make plans for how they personally will make sure their ballot gets turned into their elections official in time. Making sure that your registration is up-to-date is much easier today than it will be the day before Election Day."
The county will begin mailing ballots to military personnel and overseas voters Sept. 18, on Oct. 5 to voters living out of state, and on Oct. 14 to the remainder of voters. Typically, Van Bergen said, military, overseas, out of state and some local voters will fill out their ballots and return them the day after receiving them.
"So, we'll start seeing a few dozen in late September, then a few hundred in early October, then more and more as Election Day draws near," he said.
The county has 71,867 registered voters age 18 and older, as well as 837 registered voters under age 18. During the last presidential election in 2016, 80.2% of the county's registered voters submitted ballots. The percentage of registered voters submitting ballots in the county has steadily decreased since 2004, when 86.6% of the county's 48,938 registered voters submitted ballots.
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