An Interloper's Journey to Election Day
On Friday, October 31 I made first contact. It's Washington County. I'm in Hillsboro, Oregon and I clicked send after typing my request to the state elections division with the subject line Provisional Ballots.
I am requesting information on the use of provisional ballots in Oregon. Especially: Why are they used, and when should a voter use one? How does the elections division guarantee that provisional ballots will be counted? How are they reviewed. And who decides if the voter's information is genuine?
K. Shawn Edgar
The next day at 9:17 a.m. I received a response from Elections SOS, and it went a little something like this:
Thank you for your email. A provisional ballot is one that is issued when the eligibility of the voter has not yet been determined, or when the county elections official issues a ballot to a voter who resides in another Oregon county.
For example: if someone goes into the county elections office and says they are a registered voter but the county cannot find that they have registered to vote, they can give the person a ballot – but will not count the ballot unless they find that the person was registered by the deadline.
Or, if for some reason you are in another county on election day and you do not have your ballot that was mailed to you, you can go into any county elections office in Oregon and tell them you are not able to vote your ballot because you left it at home and are unable to get it back to the county by 8 p.m. on election day. You can ask them for a ballot in which you can vote, and once they verify your registration they give you a ballot and forward it onto your county elections office. Let me know if you need further information. Thank you.
Brenda Bayes / Elections Division
This was good, and fairly clear … but nothing I couldn't have found in their paper literature and their online help pages. I needed to delve like Rosencrantz kept waiting for Guildenstern to do in that play about them by Tom Stoppard.
Thank you for your response. The information definitely helps, however, after researching the 2000 and 2004 general elections and the lead-up to this one, questions remain. Are counties in Oregon using the so-called exact match criteria set up by the poorly named Help America Vote Act (HAVA)?
If so, how is the eligibility of a voter determined? If a person comes to her county elections office, and says she is registered but the county official cannot find her information, or a detail of her name is different (e.g., a hyphenated name missing the hyphen) the person will be given a provisional ballot. Once the voter votes the ballot and turns it in, who decides either to count it or not count it? What resources will be used to verify the name, address, etc.?
Also, how often are voters removed from the rolls for inappropriate or mistaken reasons? If that person comes in the ask about her ballot, how can she prove registration? Can she demand a regular (non-provisional) ballot?
Robert Kennedy Jr. and investigative reporter Greg Palast have spent a lot of time and effort spreading the word that provisional ballots should not be used, and that a large number of this type of ballot had been thrown out in 2000 and 2004, denying possibly hundreds to thousands of legally registered voters either vote.
I realize this is too much for an email … just want to be prepared to help those voters who end up in a situation that might unfairly subvert their right to vote. None of these questions should be taken as an accusation that Oregon elections division would intentionally act inappropriately.
K. Shawn Edgar
My lengthy inquiry led to an unsigned – and presumably hasty – response without the benefit of punctuation, except an occasional period. I've transcribed it as I received it:
Oregon is required to follow and comply with the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act The county elections official are charged by statute to inquire into the validity of any elector and to conduct all elections. When a first time registrant registers to vote they are required to provide the DMV# and if they do not have on they must attest to this and then provide their last four digits of their social security number, if they do not have a social security number they must attest to that and provide a copy of identification. This information is listed on the voter registration card. The Oregon Centralized Voter Registration System will do a cross check with the DMV number provided by the elector with the Department of Transportation verifying that this is the person who the license was issued there is also a cross check with the Social Security number. Counties do not do any purging of records within 90 days prior to any election. The best way to assist those voters asking these questions should be referred to their county elections office for guidance.
So, this is where my Washington County elections office entered the story. I had simultaneously emailed them similar questions and received similarly flat textbook answers – answers in which the responder avoided details about any possible problems. It's all by the book, sir. It's all by the book, they ensured me.
After two to three links had grown in our email chain, I received a direct response from whom I believed at that time to big the divisions number one man: Luther K. Arnold Jr., the Senior Administrative Specialist.
Mr. Arnold's email was short, directly to the point. And breaks down this way to the best of my recall's recalling.
Dear Mr. Edgar,
Please call me so I can answer any further questions about provisional ballots or security of ballot drop sites, or any other questions that might come out of it.
Luther K. Arnold Jr.
Senior Admin. Spec.
Washington County Elections
I took down his contact essentials without replying because an Okay, will do sort of message seemed pointless. I was just happy Mr. Arnold had come across so ready to discuss the voting process with me.
On Monday, November 3 when I phoned Mr. Arnold, however, the perceived eagerness quickly turned to a avoid-and-resist dodging technique. His only full answer was that he couldn't answer anything fully. He directed me to the Oregon secretary of state's office. All over again.
In a sweet political-style feedback loop I wound up on the phone with the above-mentioned Brenda Bayes of the state elections SOS. Ms. Bayes was cordial and answered my questions by the book – refusing to even consider my base assumption that elections have faults and the process has been manipulated in our recent past (see documents by Robert Kennedy Jr. and Greg Palast).
Ms. Bayes' great contribution to this part of the story was to pass me the name Mickey Kawai. She turned out (on the other end of our loop) to be the manager of my Washington County elections office – the exact kind of person I was hoping to talk with in the first place, a true in-the-muck foot soldier.
On the phone with Mickey Kawai later that day, the background noise from her end spoke in many voices urgent and oscillating. With my eyes closed the scene through the receiver became a whaling ship at sea, and Mickey Kawai became a captain both crazed with the possibility of a kill (that being a seamless process) and sane as thick concrete surrounding nuclear fission in progress (that being the possibility the process would fly apart).
However, her voice told me she was holding it all together – the chaotic operations of a county elections office the day before our biggest election day in recent history and the amped regular citizens eager to participate in her domain. At the same time there was an underlying threat of a Chernobyl-sized mishap hanging in the air, as much on my end as hers, congealing the entire county.
Unlike the mangers of the Chernobyl nuclear-plant in north-central Ukraine, Mickey Kawai managed to keep her office fuel elements (every participant) cool enough to avoid a meltdown, at least as long as we were on the phone together.
And before I disconnected, she had convinced me to come in with my video camera the following day for the big event. To observe. To participate.
I've included the short-form version of my video from election day with this post. Please view and comment.
K. Shawn Edgar