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Here's how Oregon handles election security, and why voter fraud is vanishingly rare

Many viewers asked us questions about how we know our elections are secure here in Oregon. We got the answers.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Election Day is on November 8 — but since Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, many people have probably already sent in their ballots. A number of viewers wrote in to ask us what happens next; how do we know our votes are handled and counted properly? We got answers from an expert, Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott.

The questions below are ones we received from viewers, followed by answers from Scott where applicable.

How are ballot boxes protected from people stuffing the boxes? Are they watched by security?

"Every ballot envelope is mailed with a unique ballot ID and barcode," said Scott. "If the ballot envelope doesn't contain those features, we will not process the ballot inside. If someone requests a replacement ballot and has two ballots in their possession, only the most recently issued ballot ID is valid, the other one is made invalid at the time of generating the replacement ballot."

Sometimes seeing the process can help explain how it works. Last week, KGW toured the Multnomah County election headquarters. Scott showed our crew a large sorting machine that handles ballots.

Scott said that election workers used to do the sorting, but COVID-19 made that impossible. Federal tax money paid for the $275,000 sorting machine, which now does the job of 24 people.

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The machine is doing several things simultaneously, Scott said. It's scanning the bar code on the ballot envelope and determining what to do next.

"That bar code is the unique identifier for this envelope. So this envelope is uniquely identified by the ballot ID. No one else in this election is gonna get that identification number," Scott said. "And that pairs up with the voter. So we know when we scan this ballot, this bar code, we know that voter has returned a ballot. And if that bar code isn't readable or it isn't a bar code that's eligible for this election its gonna get kicked out into the — bin number one. That's where all the rejects go."

Rejections can happen for a few reasons, Scott said. Perhaps a voter used an envelope from a past election, or they forgot to sign the outside of the envelope. Most of the time, election officials are able to contact the voter and get the problem corrected.

As a result of this system, stuffing the ballot box is not in the cards. Each ballot is associated with a bar code, and a fake ballot with a made-up bar code would be rejected by the machine. Everyone gets one vote.

Scott said that if a voter has a ballot at home but requested a second one because they lost the first, a new one is sent out. But at the same instant, the first ballot is canceled and will be rejected by the sorting machine.

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Another viewer wrote in to challenge an assertion that The Story made last week, that election security is "at the top of everyone's mind."

What if I don't believe the premise that election cheating or fraud is actually a big problem?

While it's good to know how election security works here in Oregon and why fraud isn't so easy as some people think, this viewer has a point. Despite claims from former President Donald Trump, there was no legitimate evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Even then-Attorney General Bill Barr called those claims "bull****" and "complete nonsense."

Oregon in particular has very little history of verified election fraud. Between 2000 and 2019, a 19-year period, Oregon had 38 criminal convictions for election fraud out of 60.9 million ballots returned. The most common form of fraud involves people casting votes in both Oregon and another state, and most people cited said it was simply a mistake or the result of confusion.

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To contend with more questions about our election process, however, several people asked about the signature that voters are asked to put on the outside of the ballot envelope.

If young people aren't learning cursive in school, how do election workers deal with those "signatures" on ballots?

"Regardless of how the registration card is signed, we can usually make a match to the ballot signature," Scott said. "Usually 99% or more of signatures are matched without follow up with the voter."

If someone registered to vote online, how is their signature established in order to have something to compare to the one on the envelope?

"The DMV supplies the signatures for voters who register to vote online or through automatic registration at the DMV," Scott said.

To extrapolate, when someone gives their signature to get a driver license at the DMV, the agency keeps it on file and will share it with the Oregon Secretary of State's office to verify the voter's signature.

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People's signatures change over time. How do I know my current signature is matching the one when I registered?

"People's signatures do change over time but they generally contain a lot of the same characteristics. We can usually make a match based on those similarities," Scott said. "However, if there are not enough similarities to make a match we will send a letter to the voter with a registration form and they have until 21 days after the election to return the new registration form with a signature that matches the ballot signature. The majority of people who receive these letters respond and we are able to count their ballots."

The sorting machine factors in here, as well. While it's scanning the bar code on the envelope, it's also capturing the signature and automatically comparing it to the one on file. If the signature is a total match, the machine will go ahead and accept it. If there's any doubt, the envelope will be set aside for further examination.

Scott said that all of this verification is done on the envelopes up front because the ballots themselves are practically anonymous for privacy reasons. Once the envelope is opened, the ballot joins a sea of others without any way of tracing it back to the voter.

"In Multnomah County we don't put unique identifiers on our ballots," Scott said. "So once it comes out of the envelope, it's no longer associated with you. That's why we do so much work to verify that it is you before it comes out of the envelope."

As a result, Oregon cannot go back and line up every ballot with the voter who filled it out. But, Scott said, election officials do audits after every election that the public can observe — above and beyond the Election Day observers — to ensure that the election result was accurate.

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