Tucked away in the historic brick building that is home to the Yamhill County clerk's office, two groups of four election workers are situated around a table, carefully tabulating votes received by candidates in the May 10 primary election.
By state law the clerk's office is charged with performing a hand count that is compared to the certified results of the primary and general elections, which are undertaken primarily using ballot-counting machines. The process is characterized by the Secretary of State's office as an "administrative hand recount."
"This has been part of Oregon's election security and integrity process for many years and one of the reasons why county clerks are so proud of our system," Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen said in a release.
To ensure the integrity of the process, the state selects at random 123 batches of ballots (3% of the total ballots cast) from two contests that appeared on ballots in the primary election. Last week's recount centered on the race for Position 3 on the Board of Commissioners between incumbent Mary Starrett and challengers Doris Towery and David Wall. The second race involved ballots for Position 5 on the Circuit Court of Appeals.
The process is simple, although exacting. Ballots that have been kept in a secure facility since the election are delivered in individual batches to the two four-person election boards, who individually tabulate how many votes each candidate garnered in the race. They then compare their tallies. If there is a disagreement on the numbers, they do it again.
"There have been no changes in outcomes in any contest since I began in 2013," Van Bergen said. "To the best of my research, none occurred under the two previous clerks either. As best I can remember, we have not had a difference of greater than one digit in recent years (fewer than nine total discrepancies across all contests on all ballots in an election)."
Observers from the media and individuals designated by the candidates are welcome to witness the process, although this reporter was the only observer on hand for the June 14 hand count in Yamhill County, which took less than a day to complete.
"The recount is not an adversarial proceeding, but only another step in the electoral process," Van Bergen said. "Official observers have the right of witnessing the proceedings only for the purpose of ascertaining that the statutes and the rules pertaining to the recount are properly carried out."
Recent issues with ballots in Clackamas County, which amounted to a simple printing error, have added fuel to the narrative that America's elections are susceptible to fraud and tampering. It is a sentiment that has grown since the 2020 presidential election and the former president's false claims that the election was rigged.
"Some of my colleagues in other counties in Oregon just received yet another public records request today from someone demanding data that doesn't exist from 2020," Van Bergen said. "Much of the chatter from people 3,000 miles away is complete nonsense and we've proved it over and over. Their efforts are actually causing people to distrust elections and not participate — exactly opposite of what should be happening. We should be encouraging people to participate, not discourage them."
Van Bergen added that Yamhill County performed a hand recount after the 2020 general election and the results verified that ballots were being accurately tabulated.
"Not only did we hand recount the contests that the Secretary of State's office required of us, we also recounted all of the city of Lafayette City Council race and two of the Newberg City Council races," he said. "The only differences between our official certified results across those six contests and the hand recount results were just differences in interpretations between how various voters marked their ballots — like when a voter made an initial choice, then apparently attempted to change their vote."
The hand recount held in Yamhill County on June 14 found no appreciable differences from those ballots counted by machines in the May primary election.
"In my opinion, (the June 14) efforts continue to prove that we have an excellent system in Oregon. Not perfect, but solid, reliable, secure with the best proof possible …," Van Bergen said.
Is Oregon's system the best?
Van Bergen stopped short of saying Oregon's mail-in election system is completely infallible.
"Up until December of 2021, yes," he said. "With each new change that comes out of Salem, we are at risk of eroding some of the checks and balances that county clerks have worked into our system over the course of decades."
Van Bergen was referring to legislation that became effective in January that accepts late-arriving ballots after Election Day with no postmark.
"I am also against the concept of changing the voter registration cutoff — some people keep pushing for same-day voter registration," he said. "Oregon county clerks were instrumental in establishing a 21-day window for registration so that we can mail a piece of correspondence to a potential new voter in time to inactivate them if that address proved to be fraudulent.
"Each Oregonian should be open to enhancements in the election process, but similarly wary of things that sound like improvements but actually cause more harm than good."
Making the system better
Van Bergen's primary suggestion for improving the system? "Require the teaching of cursive writing across all schools in Oregon and encourage each person to hand write, sign and mail a letter to their grandmother before each election," he said. "With each new graduating class that has no idea how to sign their name, we are losing an essential hallmark of our once safe and secure elections — the ability to confirm each ballot was signed by its owner."
Writing grandma would also familiarize young people with how to use the postal system and impress upon them "how long it takes for a letter to get mailed from one town to the next," he added.
He also warned citizens to get their election information from reliable sources.
"We each need to carefully scrutinize the social media posts from people we don't truly know and even from those people we do know," Van Bergen said. "Many of the things said each election cycle by people on social media are leading people astray. When in doubt, contact your local elections official, not social media."
How does Oregon's system compare to other states?
Van Bergen said the state's vote-by-mail system, well established and after years of improvement, is vastly more reliable and secure than in-person elections at polling places.
"In most cases, there is no paper trail in a polling place election to prove that the poll worker actually checked the ID of the voter standing in front of them," he said. "Whereas with Oregon's vote-by-mail system, clerks keep the actual ballot envelope with the signature from the voters in our buildings for two years after the election. Our systems have checks-and-balances and paper trails for nearly every step of the way a ballot takes."
He added that the only way to audit a polling place election would be to have poll workers make copies of each voter's photo ID, "a monumental task costing time and money as well as creating a security nightmare for the retention of those documents. With vote-by-mail we only have to secure one building — with polling places we would have to secure 23 different venues."
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