Election Day is next Tuesday, and groups are making last-ditch efforts to educate voters and encourage them to turn in a ballot.
Hermiston voters are faced with three measures — a school bond, a language change in the county charter and an amendment that would change the way county commissioners are elected. So far only about 10% of voters have voted.
During a town hall in Hermiston last Wednesday night, Umatilla County commissioner Bill Elfering said there had been some confusion about Measure 30-133, titled “Changes Law Enforcement Department to Sheriff’s Office in County Charter.”
The amendment to the charter would not affect the function of the sheriff’s office, but merely changes the words “Law Enforcement Department” to “Sheriff’s Office” in the charter to make it clear which law enforcement agency is being referred to.
“There is absolutely zero change in anything about who the sheriff is or what he or she does, this is simply a name change,” Elfering said.
The other county measure would change the way elections for county commissioner are held.
Under the current system, every race for a seat on the board of commissioners includes a primary in May and a general election in November. That creates situations, such as the 2018 race, when John Shafer and Larry Givens faced off. Shafer won more than 50% of the vote in May, but was not technically elected until November, when his name again appeared on the ballot — this time as the only candidate listed. He took office at the beginning of 2019, nearly eight months after voters first chose him.
If voters approve Measure 30-132, when only one or two candidates file for a seat on the board of commissioners, no primary will be held in May. Instead, the candidate or candidates will appear on the ballot in November, saving the cost of a primary race and shortening the amount of time between when a commissioner is elected and when they take office.
“Elections cost money,” Elfering said.
If more than two candidates file, they will appear on the ballot in May, and the top two vote-getters will advance to a general election in November.
Hermiston School District is also on the ballot, asking voters to approve a $82.7 million bond. The money, coupled with $6.6 million in matching funds from the state, would pay for replacement of Rocky Heights Elementary School, a new elementary school on Theater Lane, a new annex added to the high school, updates to pickup/dropoff areas in front of schools and new property for future schools. It is not expected to raise the current school bond tax rate of $3.65 per $1,000 of assessed value, and would be paid off within 26 years.
In answer to a question about whether the city and county giving Amazon a break on property taxes would affect the bond, Mooney said the planned development, while located in Hermiston’s enterprise zone, is actually located in the boundaries of Stanfield School District, not Hermiston’s, and the tax dollars would have gone there.
“Hermiston School District would not see any money from that,” she said.
However, Amazon has agreed to donate $50,000 a year to Hermiston School District, in recognition that its employees will likely have children in the district. Since the money is considered a voluntary gift, not tax revenue, it will not count against the amount of per-student dollars the school district gets from the state each year.
Part of the challenge of putting a measure or candidate on the ballot isn’t just convincing voters of a certain position — it’s also getting them to actually cast a vote. When voter turnout in Oregon is tallied after an election, it’s not uncommon for Umatilla County to rank dead last.
The county had the lowest voter turnout of any county in the state during the November 2018 election, with 56.5% of eligible voters turning in a ballot, compared to 68.4% statewide.
Umatilla County elections clerk Kim Lindell said as of Monday evening, only 10.28% of ballots had come in.
“I think turnout for this election is going to be on the lighter side because most of the county will just see the two amendments,” she said. “Charter amendments are important, but they’re not very exciting.”
The reasons Oregonians don’t exercise their right to vote are varied. Some simply forget to turn in their ballot before deadline. Others don’t like their choices, don’t think their individual vote matters or feel like they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.
Amanda Walker of Umatilla falls into the last category. She said she didn’t turn in her ballot last year because she didn’t feel like she knew enough about the candidates and measures presented.
“I didn’t feel like I had enough time to get informed, and I didn’t want to vote blindly,” she said.
Last November’s ballot was packed with choices, including local, state and federal candidates and measures that would do everything from prohibiting grocery taxes to repealing Oregon’s sanctuary state status. Walker said it can be hard for the average person working full time to track down credible information for each item.
She suggested that people find a trusted friend who is up to speed and ask them to explain ballot measures or candidates’ positions.
Jose Garcia, chair of Hermiston’s Hispanic Advisory Committee, said the committee has worked hard to try to register Hermiston residents to vote, but he often hears from people who flat-out refuse to register or to cast a vote, even though they are qualified to do so.
He chalked it up to a lack of trust in government.
“It goes back to some organization, some institution where they had a bad experience, or a relative suffered some consequences, and now that sense of safety is gone,” he said.
Lindell said if people have distrust in the elections process or worry it’s rigged, they are welcome to come to the elections office in Pendleton and be an official observer while ballots are being counted, or just talk with staff to find out how the process works.
She said Oregon’s vote by mail system makes it very secure against hacking by foreign governments or anyone else, as it is unconnected to the internet and backed up by physical ballots the county has in hand.
Some people said they didn’t vote in the last election because they didn’t receive a ballot. Lindell said ballots are mailed out 20 days before an election, which means people should get them about 17 or 18 days before the election. Anyone who notices they haven’t received one should call the elections office at 541-278-6254 or visit oregonvotes.gov to check on their registration.
New voters must register at least 21 days before an election, but registered voters whose status has become inactivated or are registered under the wrong address can get that fixed. They can have a ballot mailed to them up until the Thursday before election day, or they can walk into the elections office in Pendleton and fill out a ballot in person up until 8 p.m. on election day.
During Monday’s city council meeting, mayor David Drotzmann noted that the city had endorsed the school bond, and encouraged residents to vote.
“It’s one thing to say you support an initiative; it’s another thing to actually turn in your ballot,” he said.