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FBI: Several Oregon county clerks’ offices received suspicious letters during election, their latest challenge

Deschutes County ballot processors during 2022 election
KTVZ file
Deschutes County ballot processors during 2022 election

(Update: FBI statement on 'suspicious letters' to Oregon clerks' offices)

Deschutes County clerk says ballot processors will wear gloves, office is procuring Narcan

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – The FBI in Portland confirmed that several elections offices around Oregon received “suspicious letters” during the ballot-counting process for last week’s special election, one of six states to report such mail incidents, prompting renewed security considerations by county clerks and others.

"FBI Portland, along with our law enforcement partners, responded to multiple incidents involving suspicious letters sent to several ballot counting centers in Oregon,” NBC News was informed late last week.

“As this is an ongoing matter, we do not have any further comment,” the statement continued, “but the public can be assured that law enforcement will continue to keep the public's safety as its top priority.

“The FBI would also like to remind everyone to exercise care in handling mail, especially from unrecognized senders. If you see something suspicious, please contact law enforcement immediately," the Portland FBI statement concluded.

A Portland FBI spokeswoman told NewsChannel 21 on Monday: "At this point we are not confirming the locations or the exact number, however I can tell you that we are investigating multiple suspicious letters in the state."

Public officials in Oregon and five other states – California, Georgia, Nevada, Texas and Washington – have reported receiving suspicious mail, most targeting election offices. More than a dozen incidents have been reported, and investigators are treating the incidents as connected, for now, given the timing, a law enforcement official told CNN.  A letter sent to King County, Wash., tested positive for traces of fentanyl.

Deschutes County Clerk Steve Dennison said Monday that amid the heightened security issues, staff will use personal protective equipment (PPE) gloves while processing ballots going forward. He noted they did so during the COVID pandemic, as required by state health officials.

"We were not one of the counties that received a suspicious letter last week," Dennison said, "and I'm not aware of any that were in the mail stream on their way to us, either."

Due to the fentanyl issue that have arisen with at least some of the suspicious mailings, Dennison also said his office is working with Deschutes County Health Services to procure Narcan, the fentanyl overdose reversal nasal spray, for his office.

Here's last week's report on a study regarding staffing and other issues Oregon's county elections offices are facing, and comments from Central Oregon's three county clerks:

Oregon’s 36 county clerks play a critical role on the front lines of administering Oregon’s elections and are essential in promoting our democracy.

But an increasingly toxic political environment, inadequate funding model, and rapidly growing and changing workload are threatening the clerks’ ability to recruit, hire and retain county elections staff, according to a new study published by Reed College.

The study was commissioned by the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division to better understand the changing landscape county clerks face in advance of the 2024 Presidential election year. Researchers at Reed College’s Elections and Voting Information Center (EVIC) spent months interviewing nearly all Oregon county clerks and have compiled the sobering findings in a study to be presented before the Legislature Tuesday.

“This report is a grim but realistic look at what our county clerks face,” said Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade. “But it’s also a testament to their professionalism and ingenuity.”

The researchers found:

  • Staffing recruitment and retention is hampered by out-of-date job classifications, compensations, and perceptions of the work. Staffing today is at or below staffing levels from a decade ago.
  • Public records requests are becoming increasingly burdensome, as false information is spread and distrust in elections systems continues to fuel more frequent and complicated requests for information.
  • Local elections offices are experiencing retirements, resignations, and loss of expertise. Since 2020, 34% of county clerks have retired or resigned.
  • Oregon’s funding model for county elections, dependent largely on fluctuations in interest rates and the real estate market, is inadequate for election needs. Counties are already laying off workers because of this outdated funding model.
  • Elections officials and staff are subject to unacceptable levels of abuse, threats, and harassment, driving many of them to quit despite expressing their pride and passion for the work.

“We have active shooter training that we've done,” said one individual to the researchers. “We kind of know how to recognize some of the signs that somebody might be escalating versus deescalating.”

“I saw in [previous Clerk] this love and passion that I didn’t know was there,” said another. “It pushed me into really caring and loving and making sure that people really know what they had, and how important elections are, and the rights they have. And if you are not involved, it’s really hard to see change.”

Elections Division staff commissioned the study at the request of the Oregon Association of County Clerks, after hearing concerns from elections officials about the changing electoral landscape. Prior to the study, officials lacked data to fully capture the needs of elections administration in Oregon.

Officials call the study a critical first step to understanding the discrepancies in staffing challenges across the state and provides information for Oregon clerks to use when advocating for increased investment.

“For the last few years, we have heard hundreds of anecdotes about underfunding and understaffing at county elections offices, both here in Oregon and around the country,” said Secretary Griffin-Valade. “Now, we have some real data to back up those anecdotes. We call on legislators and county governments to read this report and consider its recommendations.”

Researchers include several recommendations in the study, directed at both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Oregon Legislature, on ways to provide coordinated and statewide support to county elections officials.

Central Oregon county clerks weigh in on study, issues

Asked his thoughts about the study, Deschutes County Clerk Steve Dennison shared some of his top issues:

"With the addition of one more full time employee dedicated to elections last year, our staffing level is up to date," Dennison wrote. "However, there are other factors causing stress on our system:

-          Locally, it’s the space we conduct elections that is in most need of change. We’ve outgrown it.

-          The battle against mis/dis-information continues to this day.

-          Lack of funding from state, cities and parties for conducting their elections is a drain on the county’s general fund.

"We love our jobs and are dedicated to serving voters, but there are many headwinds that make our work trickier these days and may have driven some out of the industry," Dennison added. "Even still, the clerks in office today are an amazing group of public officials and will continue to get the job done, accurately and on time."

Dennison said there have been some "very preliminary conversations" with county officials regarding space concerns.

"For now, we’ll make do with the space we do have," he said. "We’re able to open ballots and start processing earlier, so that’s helpful.

Regarding the last point, Dennison noted that during even years and per state statute, the state, cities and soil and water conservation district don't reimburse the county for their apportioned primary and general election costs.

However, they are obligated to pay, if they call for an election outside of those years, such as Tuesday's election, for instance. If a city placed a measure on this Special Election ballot, "they would be on the hook for their apportioned costs," Dennison said.

Jefferson County Clerk Kate Zemke said Dennison "captured the challenges we face in our work. Like Deschutes County, we take pride in our work and service to the county."

Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely provided this response to us;

"I am very happy to say that Crook County has had the same number of dedicated election staff for many years, which is two full-time staff (myself included) and a small election board.  However, our processes have changed significantly with the passing of many election-related bills over the years and our registered voters have increased by almost 41% since the beginning of 2015.  

"With the growth, changes, lack of funding from those entities that we conduct elections for, and to keep the county’s election expenses at a minimum, we have chosen to not add additional staff but to streamline our processes. We have implemented several and are looking at other additions of equipment and processes to be able to continue with the same amount of staff.

"We too are limited with space and hoping that with the completion of the Justice Center next year it will bring our office more space in the historic Courthouse.  

"Battles against mis/dis-information sadly does continue and that will increase through 2024 with the presidential elections. We are doing what we can to continue to educate voters on our processes and election laws to help curb the mis/dis-information, but our resources are very limited.  Lack of funding and small staff size are part of those limits. 

"I continue to love serving as County Clerk and conducting accurate and transparent elections, but facing the challenges that we face continue to be a struggle. Hopefully those struggles will dimmish as we move forward with new processes, more education/information for voters and hopefully more funding," Seely concluded.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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Barney Lerten

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