Study Shows Integrity in Oregon’s Voting Process, Need for Modernization

Vote-by-mail works well but has room for improvement, say Reed and Caltech researchers.

By Paul Manson | April 23, 2020

A new report released today by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College provides a roadmap to state election officials when developing a systematic election-performance auditing process for the State of Oregon. The report is a collaboration between Reed College and Caltech, with funding provided by the Oregon Secretary of State, Elections Division.

“The report demonstrates the integrity of Oregon’s registration system, but also that the system needs to be modernized to be able to take advantage of modern technology tools and analysis,” says Prof. Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center. “The performance audit process innovated by Caltech is an invaluable tool for election administrators to pressure test registration and balloting systems.”

Performance audits are emerging as important tools that election officials, and academic researchers, are using to evaluate state and county elections. Scholars have been working recently to develop these tools, as they help officials, stakeholders, and the public understand the integrity of state and local election administration, boosting voter confidence.

“We wanted to use modern technology and data tools to show Oregon voters how secure our database is,” said State Election Director Steve Trout. “What we learned is that our 2005 model voter registration database is much like a 2005 model car. The car still runs well but it doesn’t have modern features like Bluetooth and backup cameras that make for a better and safer experience.”

The researchers of the Oregon study accomplished three key goals. One of these goals was to undertake the first scientifically designed survey of registered voters in Oregon whereby voters could give their feedback and their evaluation of how elections are conducted in Oregon.  

Overwhelmingly, the survey results were positive. Few voters in Oregon reported problems with the current voting-by-mail process, as 94% of those interviewed said they had “no problems” receiving or marking their ballots. Also more than 80% of Oregon voters interviewed said that they were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in the integrity of elections in Oregon.

“Oregonians are confident in the integrity of elections in Oregon, however, most are not aware of the protections in place to ensure this integrity,” says Paul Manson, Research Director, Early Voting Information Center. “Less than half of our respondents were aware of audit processes used to protect our elections. We see an opportunity here to develop outreach to better inform the public of the steps taken to secure their elections. We hope actions such as this report help tell that story.” 

A second goal of the study was to undertake the first systematic and third-party audit of the Oregon voter registration database. “While the quality of data in Oregon’s election system is generally high, the voter registration database that was built in the early 2000s is antiquated and in need of updating to further assess the health of voter data going forward.” Seo-young Silvia Kim, Research Assistant, California Institute of Technology

The third aspect of this unique study was developing a path forward for conducting future systematic election performance audits in Oregon. R. Michael Alvarez, a member of the research team from Caltech, where he is the co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, noted that the Oregon audit pilot project shows that collaboration between academic researchers and election officials produces important results, both for the conduct of elections in Oregon and for scholarly research.

“The Oregon pilot project also shows how we can build collaborations between different types of colleges and research universities,” Alvarez noted.  “This collaboration between Reed and Caltech allows us to match faculty and students between the campuses, to learn from the skills and talents of each other, and to meet the teaching, training, and research missions of both Reed and Caltech. It’s also just a lot of fun to build a collaboration between two different educational institutions, and with the Oregon Secretary of State’s team.”

The report is now available on the EVIC’s website.

Media inquiries: 

Kevin Myers, Director of Communications, Reed College

Cell: 503-830-3708

Tags: Academics, Institutional, Professors, Research