Multnomah County, Oregon Lets Voters Pre-Order Replacement Ballots

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When people discuss Election Day lines, they usually mean lines at polling places. But administering elections is complicated and bottlenecks can form at any point in the process. Oregon conducts all-mail elections, theoretically sidestepping the polling place problem, but the line at the Multnomah County Elections Division office would sometimes stretch out the door and around the block.

Why? Because voters do things like misplace their ballot, spill coffee on it, and move to a new neighborhood with a different ballot style. Only a small percentage of voters need replacement ballots, but in large jurisdictions, it adds up quickly. Multnomah County, home to Portland and 535,000 active registered voters, issues thousands of replacement ballots during major elections — nearly 20,000 in the November 2016 election alone. A few days before Election Day, replacement ballots can no longer be mailed, so voters wait in line at the election office.

In 2016, Multnomah County implemented a solution: the Order Ahead Replacement Ballot Service. Voters fill out a form online or call ahead, and their ballot packet is ready when they arrive at the office. It’s a win-win for the voter and the elections office. “It really is about putting the voter first and valuing their time,” says Tim Scott, the Director of Multnomah County Elections. “The side benefit for us is the increased efficiency of the process.”

 
Multnomah County Elections staff helping a voter at the customer service desk. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

Multnomah County Elections staff helping a voter at the customer service desk. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

 

Streamlining the Process

Previously, when a voter called Multnomah County Elections to request a replacement ballot, the phone-bank staffers would instruct them to visit the election office. Upon arrival, the process restarted with the front-desk staffers, who relayed the request to the ballot packet assembly team. The voter would wait in the lobby until their packet was ready and the entire transaction could take up to 5 minutes. The line continued to grow, especially since the same line served all voters regardless of their request.

Multnomah County brainstormed ways to address the long lines and the duplication of staff efforts. They took inspiration from the popular business trick of letting customers order ahead to avoid the line. Sports games and concerts have Will Call ticket booths, fast food restaurants let you pre-order, and retail giants let you “Buy Online, Pick Up in Store.” Why not do the same with ballots?

 
The dedicated Will Call line at the front desk. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

The dedicated Will Call line at the front desk. Photo courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

 

Multnomah County’s adapted solution, the Order Ahead Replacement Ballot Service, has two components. First, voters fill out an online form (or, if they call the office, it is filled out on their behalf) and the data is automatically sent to an office email inbox. Staff members monitor the inbox, look up the voter, and record the request in the Oregon Centralized Voter Registration database. If there is a problem (e.g., the voter’s ballot has already been accepted, or the voter’s record cannot be found), a staff member will contact the voter. If there are no problems, a request is automatically sent to the ballot assembly department to print off a label personalized with the voter’s address, ballot style number, ballot envelope ID number, and barcode. After the packet is assembled, it’s either mailed to the voter or stored in a Will Call file, depending on the voter’s preference and how soon Election Day is.

The second component is designating a line specifically for ballot replacement Will Call. Since the ballot packet is ready when the voter arrives, there is no need to wait in the same line as voters with more involved questions. Voters can walk up to the Will Call sign, request their packet, and leave. “Voters who use it love it,” Tim says. “They are always kind of amazed when they arrive and have a dedicated line just for them and then the transaction takes just seconds.”

 
Elections office floorplan, including the Will Call ballot pick up line. Figure courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

Elections office floorplan, including the Will Call ballot pick up line. Figure courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

 

The data speaks for itself. In 2016, the year this process debuted, 2,507 voters ordered their replacement ballot with the new online tool. 27% of visits to the front counter were voters picking up their Will Call ballots. Tim compares the 2016 General election performance to the same days in 2012: “We served 682 more voters in the last two days of the [2016] election and the Election Day line was one third the size.” The results were even better in November 2018, when “1,365 more people visited our office on the last two days of the election than in 2016 and the line never grew past the 2016 point.”

 
The 2012 line stretches around the block, compared to the much shorter 2016 line. Figure courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

The 2012 line stretches around the block, compared to the much shorter 2016 line. Figure courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

 

Implementing the Program

As often happens in election administration, it took years for order-ahead balloting to evolve from an idea into a plan. Multnomah County first brainstormed the idea in 2013 during a strategic planning process, but didn’t have the bandwidth to roll out the program until 2016. “Because we have such a small staff we couldn’t tackle all of the great ideas we came up with during that 2013 session at once,” Tim explains.

In order to implement the program, the team needed to build the web tool, create the new style of ballot labeling, reorganize the customer service area to create a Will Call lane, and train staff (including front counter, phone bank, and ballot fulfillment staff). And the communications team had to educate voters about the option.

 
Promotional tweet from Multnomah County Elections for the November 2018 elections.

Promotional tweet from Multnomah County Elections for the November 2018 elections.

 

During the 2016 presidential primary, “despite very little promotion, hundreds of people used the new process,” Tim says. “So we decided to really hype it for the November general and it was amazing.” On Monday the week before Election Day, the online form was prominently displayed on the website homepage and promoted on social media. The team even created a cute promotional video showing Multnomah voters what to do if the dog ate their ballot:

 

Promotional video to educate voters on the order-ahead option. Video courtesy of Multnomah County Elections.

 

Not much has changed since debuting the Order Ahead Ballot Replacement Service. The county opened a second elections office, so now voters can choose the most convenient location to pick up their ballot, and the Will Call filing system was tweaked slightly to accommodate the volume. Other than those changes, the service operates as originally conceived. It took some effort and thoughtfulness to initially implement, but has run smoothly ever since.

Streamlining Your Own Office

The order-ahead model is a simple, low-cost solution, and Tim explains that “any locality that does a lot of in-person ballot issuing could utilize this model if their rules allow it.” Highly-populated jurisdictions in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado will find this solution most applicable, and other Oregon jurisdictions have already shown interest in reproducing it. States that allow no-excuse absentee voting, or hold individual all-mail elections, may also find this particularly useful.

 
The Multnomah County Elections office from above.

The Multnomah County Elections office from above.

 

Even if this model doesn’t fit your office’s needs, all jurisdictions — large or small, all-mail or traditional — can benefit from streamlining voter interactions. Just ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are common reasons voters visit your office?

  • When do you need voters physically present, like getting a wet signature?

  • Are there steps they could do beforehand, like filling out a form?

  • Are there steps you could do beforehand, like printing their files?

If your jurisdiction is tiny and your office has never seen a line, good customer service still goes a long way with voters. Positive interactions bolster their confidence in elections and increase their likelihood of voting. Any office can use low-cost technology, like an online form that forwards data to an email inbox, in combination with good process design.

If you have questions about Multnomah County’s Order Ahead Ballot Replacement Service or want advice implementing something similar, you can reach out to Tim by emailing tim.scott@multco.us. And for election officials who are thinking about how to minimize lines at your polling places, check out the Polling Place Resource Planner. Using this tool can help you make decisions about things like polling place setup, staffing, and equipment.


Have you found solutions for long lines around Election Day, whether at your office or at polling places? Tell us about your experience by emailing keegan@techandciviclife.org.