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Oregon Progressive Group Faces Steep Fines For Ballot Gaffe

<p>Staff count&nbsp;ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Office in Portland, Ore. on Nov. 6, 2018.</p>

Nate Sjol

Staff count ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Office in Portland, Ore. on Nov. 6, 2018.

One of Oregon’s most powerful progressive groups faces nearly $100,000 in fines after failing to turn in ballots on time in November’s general election.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s office announced Tuesday that Defend Oregon violated elections law 96 separate times on Nov. 6 — once for each ballot its campaign staff picked up from voters, then failed to turn in by the time polls closed.

The office’s suggested penalty for the mistake: $94,750, the second-largest fine it's assessed since at least 2004.

“In the Secretary’s view, the harm of not having a ballot counted is more severe than any other violation of election law,” reads a notice the secretary of state's office sent the group.

Defend Oregon is a political action committee connected to Our Oregon, the union-backed advocacy group that plays a major role in pushing progressive ballot measures and fending off measures backed by conservative players and business groups.

During last year’s general election, Defend Oregon was a leading opponent of Measure 103, which would have banned taxes on grocery sales and distribution. It was also part of a coalition that opposed measures to do away with the state’s sanctuary law and restrict the Legislature’s ability to raise revenue. Voters rejected all of those.

As part of its ground game, Defend Oregon also put on a get out the vote effort that involved collecting ballots from voters on election day, with a promise of turning them in by the 8 p.m. deadline, as required by law.

But on the morning after election day, Defend Oregon officials realized not all the ballots its workers had collected were turned in. A box of 97 ballots — including one meant for the May 15 primary election — was still at the group’s Election Night headquarters.

According to Defend Oregon’s response to state investigators, the oversight occurred because of a miscommunication between two campaign staffers.

After learning of the tardy ballots, Defend Oregon co-director Becca Uherbelau and the group’s attorney turned them in to Multnomah County elections officials. The county’s election director, Tim Scott, filed a complaint with the state on Nov. 9.

When news of the complaint became public, Defend Oregon acknowledged its error, saying it was “deeply sorry” for the mistake. In a statement Tuesday, Uherbelau again said her organization accepts responsibility.

"Increasing access to the ballot is central to our work at Defend Oregon, so we take this mistake very seriously and sincerely apologize to impacted voters who entrusted us with their ballots," the statement said. 

The group has taken steps to improve its ballot collection process, Uherbelau said. 

Richardson, the only Republican to hold statewide office, says that doesn’t undo the damage.

“There is greater harm in effectively nullifying an elector’s vote than in any other violation set forth” in Oregon’s election system, the state’s findings say. “Whether the actions of Defend Oregon were accidental or not, the harm to the electors and the election process is real.”

The secretary of state’s office says Defend Oregon actually committed 96 violations of state law (one for every ballot except for the wayward primary ballot). Given the state’s penalty matrix, it is proposing a $250 fine for the first ballot, a $500 fine for the second, and a maximum $1,000 for the remaining 94.

Defend Oregon has the ability to request a hearing to argue against the penalty before an administrative law judge. If it doesn't the fine will be assessed by default.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.