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Study: Election staffing lags behind growth of Oregon voterbase

Election workers process ballots in the Lane County Elections office in Eugene on Nov. 8, 2022.
Chris Lehman
Election workers process ballots in the Lane County Elections office in Eugene.

The number of election officials in Oregon hasn’t kept pace with voters, according to a new study from Reed College.

Researchers surveyed county election officials in 34 counties across the state. They found recruitment issues and high rates of burnout.

"It's a flashing red light on the dashboard," said Paul Manson, the Research Director with Reed College's Elections and Voting Information Center.

Manson said since Automatic Voter Registration was introduced in 2016, election workers have had to field more questions from an influx of new voters. Meanwhile, he said they've faced an increasingly politicized environment.

"The job has changed fundamentally," said Manson. "These frontline workers and managers are interpreting laws and helping voters access their constitutional rights, while managing public records requests and media requests."

But according to Manson, wages haven't increased to reflect those new responsibilities.

“We had one jurisdiction share with us that they're being outbid by the fast food companies," said Manson. "More common too, we heard they're even being outbid by other county governments.”

Researchers found that across medium and small counties, staffing was consistently equal or less than what it was five or 10 years ago.

Additionally, there was a large degree of variation in employment across the state. One medium-sized county had a voter-to-staff ratio of 73,000, while another had a ratio of 2,000.

Manson said many jurisdictions rely on revenue from their local property transactions to fund elections, which isn't based on their actual needs. And he said this funding source is now less effective, as higher interest rates have cooled the real estate market.

Manson said next year, efforts to scrutinize elections could overwhelm the offices. He predicts that with the upcoming presidential race, national groups may begin demanding a large number of county public records.

“They can flood offices with requests that they have a legal obligation to respond to on a timeline," said Manson. "And that might stop or take resources away from other key functions of the office.”

Manson said state officials might need to step in to process these large public records requests. Further, he said counties need the state to fund training for applicants.

"Next year is going to be another one of these tough elections," said Manson. "Looking ahead, that's something that definitely gives me pause."

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.