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Warning to eager voters: Oregon’s results may take longer this election

Voters at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, Ore., Nov. 8, 2022. Oregon voters can vote by mail-in ballot, drop ballots at secure sites, or vote in-person
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Voters at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, Ore., Nov. 8, 2022. Oregon voters can vote by mail-in ballot, drop ballots at secure sites, or vote in-person

A new rule means voters have longer to mail their ballots, but it could slow results in races with national impact.

It’s Election Day and a lot of Oregonians may be expecting clear results at 8 p.m. sharp, the deadline for turning ballots into your county elections office.

But Oregon now allows ballots postmarked on Election Day to be counted, instead of only counting ballots that reach elections offices by Election Day. That means final results could be delayed by days, especially in closer races.

The change could have national implications. Reed College political science Professor Paul Gronke notes that several of Oregon’s congressional races will help decide which party controls the U.S. House – and they could be quite close. Those include Oregon’s 5th Congressional district, between Democrat Jamie McLeod Skinner and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, and Oregon’s 6th Congressional district, between Republican Mike Erickson and Democrat Andrea Salinas.

“If ballots are coming in, postmarked on election day but rolling in, it may be those last two or three percentage of the ballots are going to end up deciding those races” Gronke said. “Those ballots have to be processed, signatures have to be checked, all of the security protocols have to be followed. And it might be that the U.S. House, which is going to be very close, could be decided on those seats.”

Gronke thinks Oregon’s election officials are nervous: “The lights may be on in Oregon very brightly on election night.”

Washington state has been counting votes not mailed until election day for years, and residents have just learned to wait.

“The citizens adapt to that,” Gronke said.

Voter turnout in Oregon appears to be comparatively low so far this season. But county election officials think there might be a rush on the last day, since many voters understand they can now put their returns in the mail on election day.

Delayed election results could also add to the uncertainty some people feel about voting, following former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud in 2020.

But Gronke doesn’t expect trouble in Oregon, largely because Oregonians have used vote-by-mail sinceNovember 2000.

“The data on citizen confidence and trust in Oregon is strong,” he said. “There has been a gap that has developed between Republicans and Democrats in recent years that had not been there before. But I don’t think there’s going to be a large effect. The large effect will be people are just waiting to make their choices and waiting to return those ballots.”

Gronke dropped his own ballot off at the Multnomah County library last week, but signed up with Oregon’s “My Vote” system for extra security. It tracks his ballot.

“I have now received my notification,” he said. " It’s sort of like the reassurance we have now, when we fly, that we get these updates on our phone.”

The notifications mean his vote has been received and scanned in by the county; shared with the Secretary of State’s office; and that his signature has been verified. So he can be sure his ballot has been processed.

For years, media organizations have prided themselves on announcing results early. Gronke would prefer they waited longer before calling races.

“We look back to 2020 and the controversy of Fox’s call of the Arizona results, and you know that just erupted,” Gronke said. “The competitive aspect of the media and the desire to learn right away is a challenge. I wish we could slow down a little bit. It doesn’t matter if we wait two or three days, it’s not going to be the end of the republic.”

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan doesn’t have a problem with the media’s drive to call races early. And she has grounds for complaint.

“My own secretary of states race in May of 2020 was called incorrectly by the media in the primary election,” Fagan said. “And I didn’t realize I’d won until Wednesday night, Thursday morning.”

The new extended postmark deadline for ballots was used for the first time in the May primary this year. Fagan estimates about 5% of ballots were cast on Election Day.

“But most of those came in on Wednesday or Thursday,” she said. “So that shouldn’t cause too many delays.”

Oregon’s new postmark deadline is probably not going to make much difference in races that are not close. But in some smaller county races, it’s not unheard of to have a position decided by just a few votes. That means every ballot needs to be counted before a result is known.

Oregon voter registration has been steadily climbing since the state passed an automatic voter registration law, known as the Oregon Motor Voter Law, in 2016. This month, the state hit the milestone of 3 million registered voters.

Oregon’s Secretary of State won’t certify official election results until Dec. 15 after receiving post-election audits from all 36 Oregon counties.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He specializes in health care, business, politics, law and public safety.