In a vote-by-mail state, how do you vote if you don’t have an address? It’s something hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless Oregonians must figure out. Their answers often come from service agencies.
John Brown doesn’t have a house, but he has an address thanks to Street Roots, the homeless advocacy organization and newspaper. More than 100 people use the Street Roots address as a place to get mail, according to the organization. Ballots arrive there too.
“I’ve been homeless and haven’t had a reliable address for a while; these guys are just so helpful,” said Brown.
Street Roots helps provide a stable address for people who may not have one. During the pandemic, it’s proven to be more important than ever. Street Roots organizers say they helped hand out more than $100,000 in stimulus checks.
During elections, service agencies like this help the homeless have a voice in politics.
“Since our existence, we’ve allowed vendors to use Street Roots offices as a mailing address because it’s a place that’s consistent and stable for them,” said DeVon Pouncey, vendor program manager with Street Roots.
Pouncey said they hand out ballots and help people vote, if needed. Street Roots can help mail a ballot back or the voter can return the ballot on their own.
“We’ve built the system here, and we’ve been doing it for a while,” said Pouncey.
Other organizations, like Rose Haven, do the same thing. This year they estimate between 100 and 200 ballots came through their office.
This is all legal. In fact, the state anticipated the problem when adopting vote-by-mail. Aside from service agencies like Street Roots or Rose Haven, someone can get their ballot sent to any definable place, like a motorhome or an intersection. Someone can even have their ballot sent to the local elections office.
While social service agencies provide a vital service, there does not appear to be any guidance or oversight from the state or county elections offices about handling ballots in bulk.
In 2018, the progressive group, Defend Oregon, was fined for failing to submit nearly 100 ballots in time for the election. Defend Oregon collected ballots and promised to turn them in. Since then, the state has required the group to report to the secretary of state on how it handles ballots.
The state does not track how many third parties handle ballots, according to Steve Trout, the state elections director.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, additional states have considered voting by mail. The system has also come under fire for security concerns.
Even without guidance for third parties handling hundreds of ballots, local elections officials say security is not a concern.
“There are security features built in to every vote-by-mail ballot envelope. We feel like that is a really good way to prevent the kind of fraud you’re suggesting,” said Tim Scott, the Multnomah County elections director.
Scott said the elections department verifies a nine-digit code on all ballots when they’re returned. They also verify that signatures on all ballots match with the signatures they have on file.
“The kind of ballot harvesting folks have been talking about in national media, I just haven’t seen it in my almost 20-year career in elections,” said Scott.