Multnomah County Elections works to break down voting barriers

January 14, 2015

Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott

The November 2014 election was a success.

More than 300,000 voters cast their ballots in Multnomah County in November, a strong turnout in an off-election year at 68 percent of those registered.

The team of 168 election officials and volunteers used new technologies and worked around the clock so that by 3 p.m. the next day, 96 percent of the votes had been counted. 

And a record number of people pinged the elections website to locate ballot boxes and check election results.

Even when a close vote on Measure 92, a ballot initiative that would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, required the division recount every one of those 302,584 ballots, the count happened in less than three days with just a 25-vote difference in outcome - a .008 percent rate of error.

Still that didn’t stop Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott from wanting to do even more.

On Tuesday, Scott told the Board of Commissioners that he’d like to ensure elders, those with disabilities and people with language and cultural barriers are able to exercise their voting rights.

He recommended his division establish a citizen advisory committee, strengthen its ties with Aging, Disability and Veterans Services and establish relationships with culturally-specific community leaders and advocates.

Commissioner Jules Bailey

“We want to have a program that’s accessible to everyone,” said Scott. “We have typically left outreach and education to the secretary of state’s office.”

More than 100,000 residents have moved to Multnomah County from more than 100 countries. They include more than 17,000 Spanish-speaking citizens and more than 8,000 Vietnamese-speaking citizens, according to an analysis of Census data performed by a state task force on minority language voting.

The county “should start a dialogue with underserved communities,” Scott said, “listen to what they think would be most helpful, not just come up with solutions that might not meet their needs. But really listen to them.”

Scott was joined by Julie Wise, deputy director designee of King County Elections. The Seattle-based official told the board that they hired someone to make sure they’re connecting with minority and non-English speaking language communities. They also use maps of the county that identify pockets of residents who speak a language other than English at home to target outreach efforts.

“This avoids alienation and removes barriers to voting,” Wise said. “We feel the best approach, rather than immediately translating material, is to actually engage immediately with the community to help us come up with a solution rather than creating them on our own.”

Commissioner Judy Shiprack

The Board of Commissioners applauded Multnomah County Elections’ work and encouraged Scott to move forward with his outreach agenda.

“The next step is to take those well functioning systems and take them to the next level,” said Commissioner Jules Bailey. “I think you should take your focus to the equity lens because we are stronger when everyone can participate in democracy.”

“The Voting Rights Act took us a long way and I’m glad to see that there’s some progress,” said Commissioner Judy Shiprack. “I just applaud the work that you’re doing and I know there’s room for improvement.”