As locals plan ‘watching’ ballot boxes, county urges voters to ‘Know Rights’
Social media debate leads to legal questions of monitoring ballot boxes
Voters have the right to:
1. Access official ballot boxes and election offices without interference.
2. Keep your vote private.
3. Vote without intimidation or threats.
The list comes from the Oregon State “Know your Rights as an Oregon Voter” flier that Lane County wants Florence voters to have available.
“We absolutely want people to feel comfortable,” Lane County Elections Clerk Dawson told the Siuslaw News. “Arming people with the information that's available, and making sure that the public knows what their rights are — that's the tool that we have right now.”
The reminder from Lane County came last week, after local volunteer and political leader Sherry Harvey posted on the Florence Liberty Alliance (FLA) Facebook page, asking for volunteers for a “Ballot Box Watch Team.”
“We are each taking two hour shifts and the Florence Police Station drop-off box,” the now hidden post read.
Subsequent comments on the post by FLA stated people would also be monitoring the Florence Post Office.
While FLA describes itself as a place for “freedom loving conservatives who appreciate our country” to share information on Florence, the post stressed that “vote security is a non-partisan issue — Everyone is welcome.”
The specifics of the “watch team” were not provided by Harvey or FLA, of which she is a founding member. Siuslaw News reached out to Harvey for further details, including what people would be watching for, and what they would be doing with information with what they found. No response was received by press time.
Nationally, Ballot-Box groups have been known to take pictures of individuals monitors believe are taking part in voter fraud.
“What’s your plan? Are you going to ID everyone who puts the ballot in the mail slot?” one commenter asked. “Sounds like harassment to me.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” another commenter replied.
One commenter called the post disturbing, and that it was “intimidation big time - right here in River City. I think we’ll watch the ballot box watchers.”
FLA replied, “You won’t even see us.”
Florence City Councilor Sally Wantz replied to the original post, volunteering to sign up.
“Speaking as a citizen of Florence, when I saw the post, I was struck by the comment that, ‘Everyone is welcome,’” Wantz told Siuslaw News. “I know Sherry Harvey, so I thought I would contact her for a schedule so I might consider signing up.”
As to why she signed up, Wantz said she “wanted to see if I really would be welcomed as was claimed.”
As of Sunday, Wantz had yet to be contacted by FLA to secure a spot.
“I don’t know what the FLA fears or what tactics the FLA will use during their two-hour shifts, but I’d like to know more,” she said.
Soon after the post was made, Siuslaw News was notified that complaints were filed with both the Lane County Elections Office and Oregon Secretary of State.
“We provided that information to the Secretary of State's office to find out what folks can do, what folks can't do, what folks need to know about their rights,” Dawson said. “And we have reached out to all of our public safety partners.”
Which included the Florence Police Department, where Florence’s only ballot box is located. Chief John Pitcher stated that they had not been contacted by anyone regarding a ballot box watch, and stated that, at time, they would not be allowed to monitor the premises. He did stress, however, that ballot watching was legal in Oregon.
And Dawson also had not spoken with Harvey or FLA.
“I want to believe that it's not the intent of the group that's monitoring to intimidate any voters that are returning their ballots,” she said. “We're happy to hear from that group if they're having any concerns. Whatever data they're collecting, or whatever they're observing, they're doing it with hopefully good intentions.”
For those concerned about voter rights, Dawson directs people to the “Know Your Rights” flier provided by the Secretary of State.
Voters have the right to:
4. Access official ballot boxes and election offices without interference.
5. Keep your vote private.
6. Vote without intimidation or threats.
The flier then lists several possibilities of voter intimidation, including “Targeted surveillance of particular voters or groups of voters, such as following or tracking voters, copying license plates, taking videos or photos, with the intent to dissuade or obstruct them from voting.”
Also included was making “False or misleading statements or accusations about voter fraud or related criminal penalties, designed to frighten you away from voting.”
On a broader definition of what voter intimidation was, Dawson stressed that she was a county clerk — not a lawyer — before answering.
“To me, it's a feeling; if you feel it, that's all that it is,” Dawson said. “If a voter feels intimidated and chooses not to use a drop box because of something — that's intimidation, because a voter felt intimidated and hopefully is not disenfranchised from the process.”
As to whether or not the Facebook post itself could be considered intimidation, Dawson stated she did not know, and that a lawyer would better answer that question.
And Pitcher stated that intent is an important factor.
Neither Dawson nor Pitcher were aware of any laws regulating drop box monitoring.
“[We’re] working with our law enforcement partners and doing the best that we can in this gray area of the law,” Dawson said. “There isn't anything that speaks to the observation at ballot boxes and what you can and can't do.”
If anyone feels immediately threatened at a ballot box, both Dawson and Pitcher advised them to call 911.
“If you feel intimidated, then I would follow up with the Secretary of State’s intimidation outreach phone number that they’ve provided, or let our office know, and we will elevate it,” Dawson said.
She also stated that Lance County Elections will be increasing their own monitoring of the drop boxes, and remain monitoring any situation that arises in Florence.
As for collection, Lane County teams will “go through an entire chain of custody when they're transferring ballots from the ballot boxes to the transport carriers, how they'll seal those up, and that they'll lock the ballot box, and then return the ballots to our office or continue on with their route,” Dawson said.
It should be noted, neither Dawson nor Pitcher were aware of any cases of voter fraud in the Florence area.
For Lane County, Dawson said that there were no cases of voter fraud. However, she also stressed she has only worked in the office for a few months, coming in from out of state where she was a Director of Elections.
“The May election just wrapped up before I arrived here,” she said. “I wasn't made aware of anything. And that's something pretty critical that a new clerk would be made aware of.”
However, Dawson said that if anyone does have questions about election processes or claims of fraud, they should reach out to the county clerk.
“If there is something rumored out there, or somebody has concerns about it, then come to the clerk's office. We're the trusted source to get answers related to election processes or election concerns. So I would love to be able to address that,” she said.
Ultimately, Dawson wants everyone to feel safe voting during the election season.
“We want to have a transparent election process, and we want groups to be able to observe the process, without intimidating,” she said. “In a beautiful world, they would just be monitoring and then learning about the process, and then sharing their concerns with us. That's the way that it should work and transparent elections.”
To report intimidation or ask questions about the voting process, contact Lane County Elections at [email protected] or 541-682-4234. For statewide information, visit sos.oregon.gov/voting-elections/.