Stefanie Kirby had to use a bit more muscle than is normally necessary to amass the ballots delivered this week to Baker County voters for the Nov. 3 election.
Kirby, the county’s clerk and election official, said 12,249 ballots went to the post office on Wednesday.
That’s by a substantial margin the most voters who have been eligible in any presidential election in Baker County’s 158-year history.
The previous record, set in the 2016 election, was 11,164.
Kirby said the past few weeks have been hectic in the clerk’s office at the Courthouse as employees deal with an influx of newly registered voters.
The deadline to register for the Nov. 3 election was Tuesday, Oct. 13.
“We’ve been very busy,” Kirby said on Thursday.
Baker County’s tally of registered voters has added more than 250 names since summer.
There were 11,995 registered voters in the county in July, according to the Oregon Elections Division.
The county’s population is about 16,800.
The increase in registered voters has been driven in part by Oregon’s “motor voter” law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2016.
The law requires the state to mail a notice to people who are eligible to vote, but who aren’t registered, after they visit a DMV to apply for or renew their driver’s license.
People who receive the notice have 21 days to respond.
If they don’t respond, they are automatically registered as nonaffiliated voters.
People who receive the notice can also choose to register with a political party.
During the first 9 months the law was in effect, Baker County added 1,286 voters to its rolls — a 13% increase. Most of those voters — 972 — were registered through the motor voter law, and most of those, 880, were not affiliated with a party.
For the 2012 general election, 10,167 Baker County residents were registered to vote. The increase of more than 2,000 in the past 8 years equates to a nearly 20% jump.
Kirby said the addition of so many new voters recently isn’t the only reason this has been an unusually intense summer and early fall.
A postcard that the US Postal Service sent to all residents in September also sowed some confusion that led to quite a few phone calls to the clerk’s office, and prompted some people to show up in person, Kirby said.
The postcard, the sending of which was precipitated by many states switching to mail ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, urged Americans who plan to vote by mail to “plan ahead” and to “request your mail-in ballot (often called “absentee ballot”).
The problem, Kirby said, is that such advice is superfluous, and potentially confusing, for Oregonians since the state has used a vote-by-mail system for more than 20 years.
Kirby said that based on the many questions she fielded from voters, including some who recently registered, the Postal Service postcard led some voters to wonder whether Oregon had also changed its election system due to the pandemic.
That’s not the case, she said.
As in previous general elections, the first day for counties to deliver ballots for mailing was 20 days before the election.
Oregon doesn’t have early voting, as many states are doing this year, Kirby said.
The reference in the postcard to “absentee ballots” also confused some Baker County voters, she said.
“That’s the biggest question we have addressed,” Kirby said.
Oregon does use absentee ballots, but only for people in certain circumstances who request one in advance, she said.
The three larger groups locally, Kirby said, are “snowbirds” — county residents who spent their winters elsewhere, typically in warmer climates such as southern Arizona — along with college students and members of the military.
Kirby said the county, using the same schedule as in previous general elections, sent absentee ballots to military members 45 days before the election (Sept. 18) and the other absentee ballots 29 days before (Oct. 5).
Absentee ballots account for a small percentage of the county’s electorate, she said — 319 of the 12,249 ballots, 2.6% of the total.
The bottom line, Kirby said, is that the 2020 election will be conducted the same as the previous several, with most Baker County voters receiving a ballot in the mail at their residence in the county.
Another widespread message this fall urges people to vote early, and Kirby doesn’t quibble with that advice.
Although voters can return their ballots by mail — no postage required, another confusing reference in the Postal Service postcard — ballots must be delivered to the clerk’s office or deposited in a drop box (anywhere in Oregon; there are several in Baker County) by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, and postmarks do not count.
Elections officials recommend that voters who wait until a week or so before Nov. 3 to fill out their ballot bring it to the clerk’s office or a drop box rather than put it in the mail.
Kirby said voters, as in past elections, also have the option to bring their ballot to the Courthouse, 1995 Third St., and filling it out in a booth in the lobby — a bit of nostalgia, perhaps, for voters who remember the era before Oregon adopted the vote-by-mail system.
Voting booths will be available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and up to 8 p.m. on election day.
Voters can bring completed ballots to the County Clerk’s Office in the Courthouse, 1995 Third St., weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on election days. The ballot drop site on the west (Fourth Street) side of the Courthouse is the only one that’s available around the clock, every day, including until 8 p.m. on election day.