We are privileged to work closely with election officials every day and their work to safely and securely administer our elections goes far beyond what voters see on Election Day. To shine a light on the important role they play in our democratic process, we launched this Q&A series highlighting their work. Here, Deschutes County (OR) Clerk Steve Dennison tells us about his work:
Tell us a little bit about yourself & your county.
I began in January 2001 as a technical resource and trainer for Election Systems & Software (ES&S). I traveled throughout the United States implementing systems and training counties on how to use them. These systems and databases were mainly relating to voter registration. After a couple years with ES&S, I became a project manager in support of tabulation systems. After six years, where I was supporting San Mateo and San Francisco Counties, I became San Mateo County’s systems analyst. I focused on ballot design, programming machines, and technical support for the office. I was with San Mateo County for ten years before moving to Central Oregon. I worked as the Deschutes County Elections Supervisor for four years until I was appointed Deschutes County Clerk by the County Commissioners in the summer of 2021.
Deschutes County is smack in the middle of Oregon and is the state’s fastest growing county. Our voter registration numbers are up 50% in the last six years! We’re a mid-sized county with around 155,000 voters. It’s a beautiful place to live and the area has a lot to offer. At the state level, Oregon was one of the first “motor voter” states, so voter registration is automatic when an eligible Oregonian has a qualifying interaction at the DMV. Oregon was also the first state to conduct its elections entirely by mail, which we’ve been doing for more than 20 years. Our staff is trained and very experienced in visually verifying voter signatures — we verify every single one with human eyes.
As administrators of our democracy, election workers’ jobs are so important to carry out our democratic process. How does that responsibility shape your approach to your work?
An election official’s job is to facilitate democracy — democracy is the backbone of what we do. My job is to help people participate in the democratic process: registering voters, helping people vote, and counting those votes securely and accurately. And I enjoy it! I’m honored to be part of helping people express their voice through their vote. My role is nonpartisan and I’m neutral to my core — I leave politics out of it.
There’s quite a spotlight on election officials right now and, while our work should be transparent and scrutinized, the level of mistrust toward election officials right now isn’t warranted. We got it right in 2020 in Deschutes County and throughout Oregon — we executed our processes the same way we always do — and our hand count audit proved it.
What don’t Americans know about the election process in your county that you wish they did?
Elections are secure! We test our equipment and systems before, during, and after every election to ensure everything is working properly. For the May 2022 primary, testing every ballot style added up to more than 7,000 handmarked pages! Our voting systems aren’t connected to the internet and we employ hand count audits after every primary, general, and special district election.
Our voter rolls are also updated daily; we are in direct contact with voters, the USPS, the Secretary of State, and other agencies to keep our voter registration database up to date. We also check obituaries daily and participate in ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, which tells us which voters have moved within the state or out of state, and who may be eligible to vote but is not yet registered. Voters also have a responsibility to notify their previous jurisdiction if they’ve moved. This is important so that their ballot is mailed to the correct address.
There’s a lot of attention on how votes are cast, counted, and audited. What would you like voters to know about how your county implements transparency and accountability when it comes to mail voting?
When we mail a voter their ballot, each return envelope has a voter ID, a ballot ID, the voter’s name and address, and a barcode with all of this information encoded — all of this is unique to the voter for that election. If a voter’s ballot is lost in the mail and the voter requests a replacement, we issue them a new ballot (with a new unique identifier) and our system deactivates the first one. What people may not know is that it’s okay for a voter to get multiple ballots, especially if they update their name, party affiliation, or address. Even though there are circumstances in which we may send a voter more than one ballot, only one ballot is counted – our system only allows us to count the ballot that is returned with a verified signature.
Does your state conduct some type of post-election audit, and if so, can you tell us more about it?
Oregon’s audit law allows counties to choose the type of audit they conduct: a hand recount of ballots or risk-limiting audit. These audits take place after each primary, general, and special election. Counties send a list of batch numbers to the state with the quantities of ballots in each batch (a typical batch contains 300 to 500 ballots), then the state issues a directive to the counties for which batches they are to audit. Our audits are hand count and, typically, we audit three contests.
If funding was limitless, what would you like to change or have implemented in your state’s processes or infrastructure?
For the size of Deschutes County, we could use increased funding for a purpose-built building. Additionally, while we have backup power for our tabulators, we could use increased funding for a backup generator for the building itself.
We are also always looking for ways to make elections more accessible to all voters – whether it’s adding more drop boxes or having capacity to bring ballots to people at their homes if needed. I want all eligible voters to be able to cast their ballots.
If you, like us, know how important election officials are for our democracy – consider thanking them for their service. Find your local election official at www.verifiedvoting.org/verifier and send them a note of appreciation for all of the work they do. Feel free to send suggestions for other election officials we can interview to firstname.lastname@example.org.