Thanks to Multnomah County Voters, This Damned Election Won't End on Nov. 8

County elections chief Tim Scott explains why the vote count takes so long.

Here's a safe prediction for election night: When Oregonians go to bed Nov. 8, Measure 97 will be losing.

Whether it will still be losing when all the votes are counted Nov. 9 is another question.

That uncertainty—and the larger disconnect it represents—is the bane of Multnomah County elections director Tim Scott's existence.

"The perception from the outside is something must be wrong," he says. "People are saying, 'Why aren't you telling us who won?'"

In 2008, when voters went to bed, incumbent U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) held a lead over Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley. In 2010, GOP nominee for governor Chris Dudley's lead was comfortable enough that The Roseburg Beacon declared Dudley the winner on the front page of its Nov. 3 edition. Yet in both cases, the Democrat eventually prevailed on the strength of last-day voters in Multnomah County.

In 2014, election-night totals showed the GMO-labeling measure losing by 1.2 percent. But by the final count, it had failed by just 837 votes—five one-hundredths of 1 percent.

The deluge of last-minute Democratic votes bothers some.

"I absolutely believe that voters' confidence in the system is shaken when ballots that come in late change the outcome of elections," says Bill Currier, chair of the Oregon Republican Party.

The cause of the late surge in each case was Multnomah County, where the vote always comes in late and always skews heavily to Democratic candidates and liberal causes, such as labeling GMO foods.

Related: The man who killed GMO labeling in Oregon returns to strangle labor unions.

While cities such as New York and Chicago can count millions of ballots on Election Day, the results in Portland come much slower, which plays into the skepticism of some participants.

Scott, 46, works in a bunkerlike structure at Southeast 11th Avenue and Morrison Street. He was new on the job in 2008 for the Smith-Merkley senate contest. He knew even before the count started it was going to take a long time.

"I felt completely helpless in '08," Scott says. "We had a huge, 17-inch-long ballot because there were a lot of state measures, and we couldn't start scanning them until Election Day."

Scott is painfully aware that the time it takes Multnomah County to report election results breeds suspicion. Scott says the explanation is simple: In most other big cities across the U.S., voters still go to the polls to cast their ballots, and typically use touch-screen terminals that tally votes automatically.

Under Oregon's vote-by-mail system, only about half the ballots arrive at the county's Elections Division by mail; the other half must be retrieved from 28 drop-off locations scattered across the county, right up until 8 pm on election night. Then to tally the votes, two envelopes per ballot must be opened manually, signatures must be compared to those on file to verify voters' identity, and the ballots must be scanned.

In 2008, Multnomah County could scan about 6,000 ballots per hour. This year, that number will be 18,000 ballots per hour—if nothing breaks down. Because there are now 500,000 registered voters in the county, thanks to the Oregon Motor Voter law, and because Scott expects as many as 200,000 ballots to come in on Election Day, the count will continue well into Nov. 9, he says.

"Why does it take so long for us to count? Scott asks. "It's because everybody waits so long to vote."

Scott says he'll pack his normal Election Day meal—his wife whips up a big batch of tuna noodle casserole—and settle in for a hectic 24 hours.

"It's a bit like the Super Bowl and a bit like another day at the office," he says of Election Day. "If we've done everything correctly, then it's just a mechanical process. It takes as long as it takes."