Oregon House Republican leader used minor ballot delivery delay to question election integrity

Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, used a minor delay in transferring ballots from post offices to county election offices to spread doubt in Oregon’s election system. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon’s House Republican leader sent state election officials scrambling this week after he used a minor delay in delivering mailed ballots to clerks in two counties to raise doubts about the integrity of the state’s voting system.

The short delays county clerks in Douglas and Lincoln counties experienced were caused by a “miscommunication” with postal workers and were fixed by Friday morning. State elections director Molly Woon told the Capital Chronicle that the short delays were not going to affect ballot returns and certainly wouldn’t affect voters’ ability to cast ballots securely and safely. 

“This is an issue very, very limited in scope that we were able to fix within 24 hours,” Woon said. “It was simply a miscommunication on the part of USPS, and once we talked to the statewide USPS folks, they were able to send a message down to local post offices, ‘If you’re doing this, stop,’ and then we were back in business.”

The issue normally wouldn’t have drawn public attention. But late Wednesday, ahead of a scheduled meeting with election officials and USPS supervisors, House Republican Leader Jeff Helfrich sent a press release erroneously claiming “potentially thousands of ballots have been held from election offices.” He went on to claim that two recent election laws, which he referred to as “Democrat-passed laws” were to blame for any delays. 

2019 law, introduced by then-Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and supported by members of both parties in the Legislature, requires the state to pay for postage for ballot return envelopes. A 2021 law, which also passed the House with some Republican votes, allows ballots that arrive up to a week after Election Day to be counted as long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day. 

Ballots affected by the delay made it to county election offices the same day they arrived at post offices; some in Lincoln and Douglas counties were just delayed by a few hours. Douglas County Clerk Dan Loomis said he was told new employees at the Roseburg post office were confused about how to count pre-paid ballot envelopes. It meant he ended up collecting ballots from the office around mid-afternoon instead of in the morning, as he typically does. 

On Wednesday, Loomis flagged the delays he was experiencing in an email to other county clerks, and the president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks contacted the Secretary of State’s Office. State and county election officials held a conference call with USPS supervisors Thursday morning, the postal service sent updated instructions to its employees, and by Friday, Loomis was able to pick up the day’s ballots a little before 10 a.m.  

“The problem is solved as far as I understand,” Loomis said. “There were never ballots being held back or held on to, it was just a matter of they had to improve their practice of how to account for how many they received, so that they can bill the state properly.” 

Woon said she plans to have another meeting with local election officials and USPS after the May 21 election is certified this summer to discuss any improvements ahead of the November general election. She’s concerned that USPS employees in Oregon have heard conflicting messages from their national headquarters.

State election officials were blindsided by Helfrich’s press release, as neither he nor anyone else within the House Republican office had reached out to election officials with questions before making those claims. He followed up Friday with a second release and a letter to House Speaker Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, asking that Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade address the House Rules Committee during a May meeting. 

“Unless I hear a specific plan to prevent similar delays, I find it hard to blindly have the same ‘complete faith’ in the vote-by-mail system,” Helfrich wrote. 

A spokesperson for Fahey said Friday evening that the speaker’s office was grateful to hear that the Secretary of State’s Office was able to swiftly resolve the issue and that Fahey hasn’t had time to consider the Republicans’ letter.

Helfrich did not return a phone call from the Capital Chronicle, instead having House Republican caucus spokesman Cole Avery call on his behalf. Avery confirmed that House Republicans didn’t reach out to the Secretary of State’s Office before sending the initial press release claiming the state’s election system was vulnerable. 

He dismissed questions about whether Helfrich had any concerns about making claims about elections security without first having all the relevant information. Surveys in recent years have found that close to half of Republican voters in Oregon doubt that elections are fair and secure.   

“We called for transparency because there are concerns about the integrity of our elections,” Avery said. “We felt that the best thing to do would be for the secretary’s office to come out in full public view and say, here are where the issues were, here’s how we fix it, here’s how it’s not going to happen again, but instead, what we get from the Secretary of State is, ‘We were told it was going to be fixed. Here’s the link to OPB.’ That is ridiculous. So you want to talk about transparency, go ask the secretary of state when they’re going to be transparent about these issues.” 

Jessica Ventura, chief of legislative and policy affairs for the Secretary of State’s Office, spoke by phone with House Republicans’ chief of staff Natalie Newgard on Thursday, and Newgard followed up with two emailed questions about whether the office would send a press release and how many ballots were affected. Emails reviewed by the Capital Chronicle showed that Ventura responded less than an hour later to say that the office was responding to media inquiries as they came up and that only two election offices reported a slowdown.

“Even so, this is a slowdown of hours, not days, and USPS has assured us all ballots will be received in a timely manner by clerks,” she wrote.

Ventura also included a link to an OPB article about the Thursday morning meeting with election officials and postal supervisors, writing that it did a good job of explaining the situation.

Woon said the Secretary of State’s office didn’t believe a minor delay in transferring ballots from post offices to county elections offices – a problem, she stressed, that was fixed within 24 hours – was worth notifying the public. 

“Part of what we do at the Secretary of State’s office and elections is we solve problems for county clerks, and if we sent a press release out every time we helped solve a problem, everyone would get pretty sick of that pretty quickly,” she said. 

Oregonians who have questions or concerns about whether their ballots have been received and accepted can use the My Vote page on the Secretary of State’s website, sign up for text alerts in larger counties that use them or call their county clerk’s office to confirm. Once the primary election is over, many clerks also offer tours of election facilities and answer questions for voters. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Contact Keizertimes Staff:
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