Oregon election leaders: Don’t worry. Fires won’t take away your right to vote

Sep 15, 2020
Originally published on September 15, 2020 3:22 pm

Shortly after fires ripped through her county, forcing people to evacuate, Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker’s phone started to ring.

People were worried about their homes — and their right to vote.

"We got phone calls and emails, people saying, ‘I have been displaced. How can I get my ballot?'’ Walker said.

Walker, who saw her own childhood home and neighborhood in Talent destroyed by fire, said she is trying to send a clear message back: “We want to give confidence to our voters," she said, "even through tragedy they can absolutely access their ballot and let their voice be heard.”

Fires have killed at least eight people, scorched almost 1 million acres in Oregon and forced some 40,000 people to evacuate. In areas hit particularly hard, county clerks are considering ways to ensure those whose lives have been upended can still manage to vote with relative ease when ballots go out in mid-October.

One fact that will surely help: In Oregon, voters can receive a ballot no matter where they are staying in the nation or the world, including temporary shelters or a relative’s address.

“We send ballots anywhere,” said Bill Burgess, the clerk in fire-ravaged Marion County.

Burgess noted Oregonians can request a ballot in person at a county clerk’s office and they can also vote while at the office. Burgess said he’s in the process of transforming space at the clerk’s office into more private voting areas. Oregon has a centralized system to ensure people don’t vote more than once, and any previous ballots are canceled automatically once a ballot is cast.

Phil Keisling, who as Oregon secretary of state in the 1990s helped oversee Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, said the state is actually well-positioned despite dealing with dual tragedies: a pandemic and wildfires.

Oregon voters also can use a mailing address that differs from their permanent address to receive their ballot. Their ballot reflects their residential address — ensuring they are voting for the officials in their region — but mailing addresses can be updated or changed.

“If you have someone who is temporarily homeless and has a tent under the Burnside Bridge, that is their legal residence for voting," Keisling said. "So the state representatives that represent that geography will be on their ballot, and they can have it mailed wherever ...

"It’s a voter-driven and voter-friendly process.”

Laura Fosmire, the spokesperson for the Oregon secretary of state’s office, said: “If people have the bandwidth to care about this, if they are concerned about this, contact the county clerk. They will assist and help you get a solution. We absolutely want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to vote and get their vote counted this November.”

Here are a couple of key points:

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