Officials take precautions as Oregon votes during pandemic


SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Hand sanitizers. Social distancing. Licked envelopes containing ballots.

Tuesday’s primary in Oregon amid the coronavirus pandemic and other challenges has created some unprecedented issues for officials and workers handling the vote-by-mail election.

“We are all very busy and focused on making this election work in spite of the pandemic, heightened cybersecurity threats, misinformation, disinformation and lack of public attention to this election understandably due to pandemic health and economic concerns,” said Bill Burgess, president of the Oregon Association of County Clerks.

At this point, all ballots must be taken to official drop-off sites because it’s too late for mail delivery. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday to be counted.

Despite the challenges, Burgess, the county clerk for Marion County, expects to have initial results at 8 p.m. Tuesday and to certify final results within a predetermined 20-day window.

There is no drama in the primary race for the White House. President Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee and Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Of more interest are the party races for Oregon secretary of state — the second-highest statewide office after the governor — and one to replace Rep. Greg Walden, a Hood River Republican, in the huge 2nd Congressional District covering eastern, central and part of southwest Oregon.

Walden, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, is not running for a 12th term.

Only voters who declared a party affiliation can vote in the primary.

Republicans running for the seat being vacated by Walden include Knute Buehler, a former member of the Legislature who unsuccessfully ran for Oregon governor in 2018; former state Sen. Cliff Bentz; and former state legislator Jason Atkinson.

“It’s make or break time. Crunch time,” Buehler told supporters in an email asking for campaign donations.

Four Democratic are seeking the seat, including Alex Spenser, who listed her prior government experience as campground host at Lava Beds National Monument and Death Valley National Park.

Democrats running for secretary of state include state Sens. Shemia Fagan and Mark Hass, and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who ran unsuccessfully against Walden in 2018.

State Sen. Kim Thatcher is the only GOP candidate.

Election workers on the front lines of voting in those races have been receiving instructions on handling ballots along with protective equipment from the Oregon National Guard and ordinary citizens.

One concern has been envelopes that were licked and sealed by voters before being dropped in the mail. The secretary of state’s office said in a fact sheet for election workers that such envelopes pose little threat because they go through machines with lots of friction, heat and airflow that disrupt the virus.

However, that does did not address the risk of handling envelopes from drop-off boxes.

“On a national call, the presenting physician said there is little concern of passing along COVID-19 on paper, i.e. envelopes and ballots,” Burgess said. “Further, we open envelopes from the bottom, not from the possibly licked portion of the top of the envelope.”

In Marion County, some temporary employees hired to open and count ballots were unable or unwilling to work due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Burgess said. Still, there are more than enough people to handle ballots, he said.

They must work in pairs, with at least six feet of social distancing.

“We provide hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and face shields,” Burgess said. “We urge frequent hand washing. We sanitize surfaces frequently.”

Deschutes County has many of the same safety measures, and it will take longer to process the ballots with fewer people than initially expected, said Nancy Blankenship, the county clerk. Still, she expects first results to go out on time Tuesday.

“Accuracy and employee safety is our No. 1 concern,” Blankenship said.

In Yamhill County, election workers have received scores of hand-made masks from people all over the county, said county clerk Brian Van Bergen. His team is also armed with locally produced hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment delivered by the Oregon National Guard and emergency management teams.

“Our expectation is that our teams will conduct our election with very little noticeable difference in speed from anyone outside of our building,” Bergen said. “It will not be easy, but that is our goal.”


Follow Selsky on Twitter at


Join the Conversation

Top Local Stories