Election laws have steadily moved in the direction of centralization. Local political units either become obsolete or are dependent on a central authority. Centralized systems and governments all have one thing in common, placing a vast amount of power under the control of a few people. If the system is not spawned by corruption, it will end up embedded with corruption later.
House Bill 4136 has the potential to foster centralization and corruption at the speed of the internet. The bill is sponsored by Representative Rayfield and Senator Manning Jr. It would legalize digital voting by requiring the Oregon Secretary of State to establish a digital voting system to allow specified electors to “digitally request, receive, mark, verify and cast“ a ballot. “digitally eligible elector” means an elector who is overseas, has a disability, resides in an area where a state of emergency was declared, was hospitalized within 14 days of the date of the election, or residences outside of the state of Oregon. Upon passage, digital voting would start at the district level. This is the same method used when mail-in ballots were introduced in 1981.
The Oregon Secretary of State, currently Shemia Fagan, would be responsible for creating the state regulations that would determine many of the details on how the law would be enacted by creating the administrative law. The Oregon Administrative Rules are not passed by voters, but instead by a few people with the agency that will administer those rules.
Steve Trout, a former Director of Elections under the Office of the Secretary of State, had quit and was fired from his position during the 2020 Oregon election while the votes were still being counted. He had criticized the ORESTAR website, lack of security upgrades and the failure of fixing dozens of bugs within the election system. House Bill 4136 would place the responsibility of managing the internet voting to this same office.
Corporations and governments with stellar reputations for taking every precaution to protect their computer systems get hacked. Hospitals and corporations have been forced to pay millions in ransom. Yet our politicians are trying to pass a bill that will put our ballots on the internet and make our elections much more vulnerable to attack.
The shift to centralized elections unfolded with the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), also known as the ‘motor voter law’ under the administration of President Bill Clinton. Besides shifting some of the regulatory powers to the federal level, this act also sifted some of the voter registration duties from the county clerks office to the state level. Completed voter registration applications accepted at a motor vehicle agency were transmitted to the state election officials, usually to the Secretary of States’ Offices, depending on the state. Social services were also included with registrations outside of the county clerks office.
In 1998 the Oregonians passed a measure to expand mail-in voting to primary and general elections. The mail-in ballots ended the precinct as the place to vote, count, and tabulate the votes. Those duties were centralized to the county clerks office.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 required states to adopt a computerized statewide voter registration list. Oregon adopted a single, central platform at the state level that connected to terminals in local jurisdictions. This system of registration is typically referred to as a ‘top-down’ system, in other words a centralized system.
The state level of government became responsible for who made the decisions on the maintenance of the voter rolls. Oregon joined the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) in 2014 and now follows the contract requirements demanded from that organization. ERiC is supposed to find and eliminate voters who have moved to other states or counties but their records show unrealistically small numbers of people who have moved. Oregon Centralized Voter Registration System also has a contract to help clean the rolls.
The fee for ERIC membership is $25,000 but costs can run into the millions to fund the activities and membership dues. ERIC is entitled to all records from the state voter rolls plus what is gathered from the Motor Vehicle Department.
ERIC has expanded its’ services to some states to include registering new voters. This additional service might be the inspiration behind another House Bill, (HB 4133) that if passed will amend ORS 247.019(B)(5) to read: “The electronic voter registration system may also include an application programming interface to allow third-party organizations to securely submit registration cards electronically on behalf of individuals.”
The maintenance of voter registration rolls has evolved into a system where the state controls one statewide database and the county maintains their own separate database. Per the Douglas County Clerk, the clerks office can not access the statewide database to check for errors for his counties voters. The Secretary of State does sell their statewide database for $500 to the general public yet the ballots are sent out to the voters from the county database. The question is why are there two sets of rolls?
Voting machines add another layer of centralization and vulnerabilities to election fraud. The few people at companies that manufacture and program the machines have patents and contracts that prevent anyone from knowing how the machines work. The use of these constrains hamper or prevent forensic audits of the machines used in our elections. They are also in conflict with our freedom of information laws.
In contrast are the decentralized election systems operated at the local precinct. The voter showed I.D. and was handed a ballot. The voter went into a booth, marked and returned the ballot. The ballot was hand-counted by opposing party poll workers with two party observers in attendance. The ballot was tallied within one’s own neighborhood. The national count was usually in by midnight; election over!
Back in the mid 1960’s the voting laws had blocked discrimination and ended poll taxes. There were no multi-million dollar contracts with voting machine companies or a voter roll maintenance company or organization, no signature verification issues, no ballots getting lost in the mail, no need to return ballots to the election office when the registered voter moved or died. It was simple and cheap, the ballot chain-of-custody stayed in tact, and most fraud was blocked.
The passage of Oregons many election laws, along with the two federal acts mentioned earlier, has taken a decentralized system at the precinct and county level into a centralized system with the power at the state level, specifically within the Secretary of States’ Office. We don’t need any new election laws. In a gross understatement of the process, we need to repeal election laws till we get back to what they were in the late 1960’s. Back to the Future!