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Marion County Elections Clerk Bill Burgess gives an overview of the process of sending, receiving and counting votes

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Primary election ballots are due May 17.Conducting an election is a painstaking process, from determining specified ballots appropriate to registration or party information and specific geographic regions to sending out those ballots and processing them when they return.

Then there is the verification of signatures and the handling of unsigned ballots. Sometimes unsigned ballots even turn up from the least likely sources.

"In fact, yours truly forgot to sign one of his ballots," Marion County Elections Clerk Bill Burgess told the county's commissioners recently.

Burgess elaborated on the mishap in the third person.

"He was posting it in the Corvallis downtown post office — (at) an OSU affair — and he wanted to see just exactly how long it would take to get from there to here. But, unfortunately, that county clerk didn't remember to sign his own ballot."

Burgess' admission prompted Commissioner Kevin Cameron to share that in 2006, the first time he was on the ballot, he had forgotten to sign it. He received timely notification from the county via mail to rectify it, but had not discovered the letter in his batch of mail and opened it after the deadline.

"So, my first election I didn't even vote for myself," Cameron said.COURTESY PHOTO - Marion County Elections Clerk Bill Burgess

Commissioner Danielle Bethell echoed a signature glitch, noting that she had to go to the election clerk's office to verify her signature once.

The overarching lesson is: Be sure to sign your ballot. If there is a problem with a voter's signature, the elections office will send notification and allows 21 days following the election to resolve it.

Election crunch time

The primary election deadline is coming up on May 17, which means crunch time for voters who have not yet filled out their ballots.

Burgess met with the Marion County's Board of Commission on May 4 to provide an overview of the activity in his office leading up to and following the election process, including the task of determining which ballots go to each given voter in the county.

There are more distinct ballots than most may realize.

"Actually, we have exactly 375 ballot styles," Burgess said. "Folks in the Republican or Democratic parties will get separate ballots to vote for people they want to vote for to represent them in the November election. And there are about 60,000 people in each of those two parties.

"But we have another 100,000 people in the county that are registered voters; 80,000 in what we call non-affiliated, and the rest in other parties," Burgess continued. "Of those people, they still have things to vote on, like the statewide races for commissioner of Bureau of Labor and Industries, several judge candidates…and then, if you live in the city of Salem, everybody in the city of Salem is going to be voting on the mayor, a non-partisan race. Some of the wards in Salem will be voting for councilors. And then, the cities of Sublimity, Aurora and Donald have measures on the ballot, and so does the Gervais School District.

"So, depending on where you live, those are the things you are going to vote on."

Woodburn's city races take place in the fall election.

Voter registration has reached record levels statewide in recent years.

Earlier in the BOC meeting, several members from a group dubbed Oregon People's Vote, addressed the commission during the public comment session to impart reasons why they sense the 2020 election could be suspect.

Walt Peters of Salem said he looked at population growth of the county; he said from 2016-20 the county's population rose from 335,000 to almost 346,000 — an increase of 3%. He then juxtaposed that with votes cast: 133,369 in 2016 and 168,254 in 2020.

"For me that posed the question, without knowing the answer, is it possible for the voting count to increase by 20.7% versus a population growth of only 3%?" Peters asked.

The short answer is yes.

During his presentation, Burgess addressed that question.

"There is a really good, logical explanation for that," he said. "In 2016 in Marion County we only had about 60-65% of the people who were eligible to vote registered. Now at least the statewide number is about 93% because in 2016 we started the automatic voter registration process through the DMV, and that has grown quite substantially and continues to grow."


Checking the signatures on mail-in ballots is a detailed process, and one of the concerns that cropped up from Oregon People's Vote members.

Burgess said the clerk's office has an automatic signature verifier, which the office frequently audits for accuracy.

Ballots rejected by the machine are subsequently examined by signature checkers. The first checker compares it the signature on file. If that person also rejects it, the ballot goes to a second, more experienced checker.

"If the first person says yes, then it goes through. If the first person says no, then (the ballot) goes into a batch of rejected ballots that a second more experienced person (does) a more laborious (task) of going in and looking at all the signatures that we have on file for that person," Burgess said. "Because sometimes you see (signature) changes."

If the ballot is still rejected, the clerk's office sends a letter to the voter who can sign it and send it back for verification purposes.

The county also has about 16,000 voters who have signed up for "track my ballot," which informs voters when their ballot has been sent and when it has been received by the office and processed through the signature check.

"Through the first set, maybe about 10% of the ballots don't pass signature verification," Burgess said. "But by the time we get down to the end, it's more like 1% that don't pass."

Burgess said the signature checking process has been vetted by county clerks statewide over the years.

Jan Coleman, who has worked in county clerk's offices and with the Association of Oregon Counties for decades, told the commissioners that she is among the second checkers involved.

"I will tell you that this is my 40th year in elections; I started in January of 1983," Coleman said. "My first training came through the state police, so we have had a progressive training through this."

She said second checkers follow a trail of the voter's registrations, studying in-depth tendencies with signatures and changes over the years.

Missing your ballot?

Ballots were sent to registered voters in late April. Anyone who is registered to vote but did not receive a ballot should contact the clerk's office. Registered voters can request a replacement ballot up until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

"That's really important. If you haven't got your ballot by now, you should be calling us to check and see what's going on," Burgess said.

Burgess said one tricky factor is that people move frequently. The postal service has focused on making voter registration updates part of its mail forwarding process, which helps keep registrations current.

"About one-sixth of the people move every year, and that is quite something for us to deal with," Burgess said. "We do everything we can, but it's also up to the voter to let us know if they don't get a ballot, so we can get that ballot to them in a timely manner."

Replacement ballots have unique ID numbers that inactivate the previous ballot if records show one had been sent. Each voter has only one active ballot envelope.

Voter information

Marion County Elections Clerk's Office:; 503-588-5041.

Marion County has 24 ballot drop sites including:

• Donald City Hall, 10710 Main St. NE, Donald, curbside 24/7;

• Hubbard City Hall, 3720 2nd St., Hubbard, curbside 24/7;

• Woodburn Public Library, 280 Garfield St., Woodburn, curbside 24/7;

• Gervais City Hall, 592 4th St., Gervais, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and until 8 p.m. Election Day;

• Mount Angel Public Library, 290 E Charles St., Mount Angel, curbside 24/7

• Silverton's Lewis St. parking lot, 208 Lewis St. and S 1st St., Silverton, curbside 24/7.

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