Three Northwest states launch voter education campaigns to shore up public trust
By Kaylee Tornay / InvestigateWest
Bill Burgess has fielded more questions leading up to the 2022 midterms than in any election he can remember during his 17 years as clerk of Marion County, Oregon.
On a recent afternoon, he received three phone calls about cybersecurity. In each conversation, he worked to assuage callers’ concerns about the possibility that vote-tallying machines could be hacked to compromise the results of a race. His Salem office has been flooded with copy-and-pasted requests for vote-tally records from the 2020 election. While he doesn’t resent the curiosity, the level of suspicion and concern has alerted him to a shift in how his job is perceived, even in a purple county like Marion that split 49%-to-48% in favor of Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020.
Lately, as Burgess has thought about his role as a local elections official, a line from “Sink the Bismarck,” a song about the World War II hunt to destroy a mighty German warship in 1941, has come to mind. The line talks about the need to sink the warship “’cause the world depends on us.”
“I’m feeling like now elections staff in the U.S. have the same (responsibility),” Burgess said. “We have to make these elections work, have to make them accurate, transparent and accessible to all that are eligible to vote, or democracy doesn’t work.”
When he and other elections officials talk about the stakes involved with their work, one searing image is burned into their minds: the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
While a current of distrust in American elections continues to swell, officials are taking new steps in 2022 to counter misinformation and educate the public on how they ensure elections are accurate and secure. Across the Pacific Northwest, state and county elections chiefs are rolling out new public education campaigns and inviting community members in to see their work in action.
Transparency has always been a core value of the work that goes on in elections offices, officials said. But as both the frequency and the tone of inquiry into their work have intensified in recent years, many say openness and communication with the public is becoming an ever more critical component of doing their jobs safely and fairly.
“It’s sort of this balance of making sure we’re being safe and secure, but also being transparent and providing the public with the reassurance that the voter roll has integrity and the elections process is secure,” said Stuart Holmes, acting election director for the state of Washington.
Lingering echoes of 2020 disruption
In Oregon and Washington, the pandemic caused comparatively less disruption to normal elections processes than in other states, because both had already used vote-by-mail systems. Oregon implemented full vote-by-mail in 1998, and Washington made the switch in 2011.
Still, the states were not exempt from skepticism among residents about the 2020 general election — first about the outcome of the presidential election and later the security of the whole system.
Many people’s questions have centered on whether the states conduct audits of their elections processes and on the security of the machines that tally the paper ballots.
Like Burgess, Holmes has also heard concerns that Washington’s machines could be hacked. He informs people that the computers that tally the votes are air-gapped, meaning they have never been connected to the internet, and they have no wireless capabilities.
Elections officials in Oregon and Washington both described well-established systems of pre- and post-election audits to check the accuracy of the vote.
Before vote tabulation machines are approved for use in a county, they have to go through state and federal testing to ensure they are accurate and secure.
And before Election Day in both states, each county has to test those vote tabulation machines to ensure they are still running smoothly and counting accurately.
Afterward, counties are required by law to hand-count a random sample of votes and compare them to the machine tallies.
“We have a really foolproof system,” said Ben Morris, communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. “I don’t think people knew about that. Initially, after 2020, the election deniers were calling on us to perform post-election audits because they didn’t know we already did.”
Audits and data on voter fraud complaints and convictions show how infrequently issues arise.
The audit of the 2020 general election in King County, Washington, for example, showed small discrepancies, but confirmed the recount didn’t alter the outcome of any elections.
“The main differences are an increase of ‘undervotes’ which would happen if the voter selected a candidate, then later took corrective action and made no selection instead,” Holmes said.
In special and statewide elections from 2000 through 2019 in Oregon, the state Department of Justice obtained convictions in 38 cases of voter fraud, according to data from the state. Of the 60.9 million ballots cast in those elections, those convictions amount to a rate of convicted fraud of .00006%, or less than one hundred-thousandth of a percent.
Pandemic-related adjustments looked a little different in neighboring Idaho, where the vast majority of voting takes place in person.
When COVID forced the state to adjust, switching to universal absentee voting in the 2020 primary, officials encountered a “little bit of angst” from voters who were unfamiliar with the process, said Jason Hancock, deputy secretary of state and elections chief for Idaho.
“Our phones were ringing off the hook there for about a month,” he said.
Still, the state didn’t face widespread pushback about 2020 elections results until election deniers began pushing out information seeming to provide evidence that Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race was illegitimate. In early 2021, Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a prominent proponent of the Big Lie, circulated unverified numbers of votes that were allegedly electronically switched, broken down to the county level.
At that time, the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office had no legal requirement or designated authority to conduct mandatory post-election audits, Hancock said. And some of the claims were clearly outlandish: Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck noted Lindell’s numbers alleged electronic manipulation in all of Idaho’s 44 counties, even though at least seven, he said, didn’t use any electronics in their vote counting processes.
But Lindell’s unsubstantiated numbers prompted enough protest from Idaho residents to push the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct its first informal audit.
State elections workers, including Hancock, traveled to two of Idaho’s smallest counties to conduct hand-counts of their ballots from the 2020 general election. Another larger county requested to be part of the audit. Ballots from eight precincts were also hand-counted and compared to the 2020 machine counts.
“Not surprisingly to us, we found the results we got in the hand recount were extremely close to the results that were reported on election night, and did not reflect the vote switching that was alleged to have happened,” Hancock said.
Fighting back with facts
In the 2022 legislative session, the Idaho Legislature passed a new law tasking the Secretary of State’s Office with conducting regular elections audits. It reported the results of the audit of the May primary in June.
Houck, the Idaho deputy secretary of state, stated that the audit found “an extremely high level of accuracy” in vote counting across the eight counties reviewed in the audit.
State legislatures in Oregon and Washington also have taken notice of the noise around elections and responded with funding for new initiatives to educate voters about how elections work.
Both states plan to roll out new video campaigns that detail how voting is kept secure and accurate.
In the Beaver State, officials embraced the message that “It feels good to vote in Oregon,” Morris said.
“What’s really important is we are getting a couple of key messages in there and linking people to the website, where we have created this ‘Learn about voting in Oregon’ section,” Morris said.
The ad touches on a few election security topics such as signature verification and vote tallying. It also steers voters to the state’s website, which has been updated to include more comprehensive information to answer skeptics’ questions.
A version of the ad spot debuted in May, but the new campaign, which launched Oct. 1, features more robust information to counter misinformation. But even the first round of the ad campaign drove increased numbers of voters to the secretary of state’s website, Morris said.
Around 120,000 voters visited the website to check their party affiliation ahead of Oregon’s closed primary. By contrast, only 11,000 did so during the 2018 primary.
The office is spending about $350,000 on the campaign, Morris said, and is looking to the Legislature to permanently fund this type of outreach.
In Washington, the Legislature allocated $4 million to the Secretary of State’s Office this year to fund new initiatives to enfranchise underserved communities and fight misinformation.
Part of that work involves identifying barriers and misconceptions that keep people in certain communities from voting, Holmes said. The effort is in early stages and includes working with local stakeholders to identify the best ways to reach communities.
Idaho officials rolled out their public information campaign in 2021, complete with 40 videos explaining all parts of the process, from verification of absentee ballots to voter identification at polling places.
“It tries to take a deeper dive with people into the whole process of how elections work in Idaho,” Hancock said. “So they can understand we do have these controls in place so we make it difficult to cheat, and the ways we have of catching people who try to cheat.”
High stakes heading into the midterms
To some extent, officials said, attempting to answer everyone’s questions can feel like a never-ending task.
Each has heard concerns about vote machines being hacked, people submitting ballots on behalf of dead residents and ballots that were simply destroyed or hidden. But the audits have shown such vote discrepancies are extremely rare and are usually the result of human error — not fraud.
“At times it can feel like Whack A Mole,” Morris said. “Whenever you satisfy one factual request, another one pops up.”
But the stakes involved with public perception of elections are high. They have ramifications on state policy governing elections processes, the safety and smooth operation of elections offices, and the voters themselves.
Christopher Stout, an assistant professor of political science at Oregon State University, described a link between distrust in elections processes and voter access. He pointed to states such as Arizona or Florida that have passed new laws in reaction to voter fraud concerns, including moves to close polling places and remove ballot drop boxes, and legislation to purge people from voter rolls more frequently.
Such moves, he said, “create an additional burden without much proof these burdens are solving a problem. If I have to re-register to vote between every election, that’s an additional burden, and to solve a problem that’s not well-documented.”
Elections workers also get caught up in the controversy. Maintaining their safety has become an increasingly common point of discussion for state elections chiefs.
The Washington Legislature this year made elections officials eligible for participation in the state’s home address confidentiality program, if they have been targeted by harassment or threats. Other people eligible for the program, which is overseen by the Secretary of State’s Office, include criminal justice professionals or survivors of stalking, domestic and sexual abuse, or sex trafficking.
“That shows the significance of the issue and how seriously we’re taking that,” Holmes said.
Hancock said he wasn’t aware of new widespread safety concerns in Idaho. But, as in Oregon and Washington, recruitment for election workers remains a challenge.
Burgess, the Marion County clerk, said his office typically has between eight and 12 vacancies among its staff about a month before the election. This year, he has more than 20 spots to fill — of the 60 workers needed on Election Day.
As he did in 2020, which was partly due then to COVID, Burgess plans to have extra security around the office on Nov. 8 for Election Day.
“Hopefully we don’t need it, but we can’t take a chance to not have it,” he said.
That doesn’t mean his office is tightly guarded. Burgess, who has made it a habit to ask anyone from friends to grocery store clerks if they are registered to vote, also makes himself available for tours of the elections office. He has already scheduled a couple this election cycle.
“If we could take every voter in Oregon and spend a day with them at the county clerks’ office and walk them through it, I think we could probably put an end to the conspiracy theories,” Morris said.
FEATURED IMAGE: ‘I Voted’ stickers on top of a ballot box at the Marion County Clerk’s Office on Sept. 28, 2022. (Amanda Loman/InvestigateWest)