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Oregon elections director out after penning a blistering memo

Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks
Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019.

Oregon’s state elections director has left the job less than a week after a record-breaking general election that has yet to be certified.

Steve Trout, who was tapped for a second stint managing Oregon elections in 2017, served his last day on Friday, according to the secretary of state’s office. Trout’s former deputy, Michelle Teed, is serving as acting elections director, according to Andrea Chiapella, chief of staff for Secretary of State Bev Clarno.

“Steve gave us notice that he would be leaving the agency and in order to ensure a smooth transition, his last day was Friday,” Chiapella said Saturday evening. “We appreciate all of his great work as elections director and we are lucky to have had such a knowledgeable advocate for the democratic process on our team.”

The timing of Trout’s departure, as the state has yet to certify the results of its recent election, is odd. He did not immediately respond to an inquiry, and the secretary of state’s office did not immediately provide a copy of any resignation letter he might have filed.

But a memo Trout sent last week to secretary of state candidates provides clues to his exit. In the damning letter to Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan and her opponent, state Sen. Kim Thatcher, Trout laid out a litany of challenges faced by the elections division.

He said that the secretary of state’s office, which has been run by four people since 2015, suffered from “a lack of strategic vision and plans for the agency, and staff are not focused due to that lack of vision and leadership.” Part of that, Trout wrote in the letter sent on the eve of the election, was due to former Secretary of State Dennis Richardson dying of cancer in 2019, which, he noted, “was no one’s fault.”

While Trout touted strong partnerships with federal agencies in addressing threats and disinformation in Oregon elections, he said the elections division has been denied resources. He laid out 12 specific upgrades he’d requested for state election systems that had not been funded — projects such as a replacement for the state’s ORESTAR website, security upgrades and fixing dozens of bugs within elections systems.

“Some of our election systems are running on Windows Server 2008,” Trout wrote. “End-of-life mainstream support from Microsoft ended back on January 13, 2015, and all support ended on January 14, 2020. Our public facing websites are single threaded through one power supply on the capitol mall and one internet connection. There is no redundancy or resiliency or plan to provide either.”

Trout also said that the elections division is among the first places that sees budget cuts in tough times, and he complained that lawmakers had not authorized officials to spend nearly $12 million made available by the federal CARES Act. He also noted that lawmakers had rejected a request for a “social media/public records” position, even as the number of public records requests spiked.

Trout closed the memo on a dour note:

“I don’t want you to be surprised if you hear I am interviewing for new jobs,” he wrote. “It is not because I don’t want to work for either of you, but rather because I cannot succeed with the current state of technology and lack of support in the agency. I don’t believe anyone will be able to succeed.”

Trout did not make clear in the memo that his departure was imminent, however. Rather, he urged Fagan and Thatcher to take his concerns seriously, saying: “I would be willing to discuss staying on as a part of your administration. There are so many opportunities for improving elections right now throughout the country that I want to use my talents and abilities to effectuate the most good. As things currently stand, I cannot do that in Oregon, but with your leadership anything is possible.”

Clarno’s office did not immediately answer an inquiry about whether she was aware of the memo. Trout’s departure was first reported by Willamette Week.

Trout is not the only high-ranking member of Clarno’s staff to depart last week. Her chief of staff, Cameron Smith, also left the office, having accepted a job with the Northwest Credit Union Association. Smith’s plans to leave the office were announced in late September.

OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.