Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly wants more Portlanders to vote. So she's sending out city workers on the public dime to remind them.
On Oct. 23, Eudaly unveiled her plan for the last Friday before Election Day. She'll send city workers on a door-to-door canvassing event Nov. 2 to encourage registered voters who have not turned in ballots in recent elections to cast one this year.
City employees won't be required to participate. But if they choose to, they will work on city time during the "Get Out the Vote" canvass. It's still unclear how many city workers will volunteer, and how much city money will be devoted to the effort as a result.
Eudaly's office will also spend another $1,000 on 5,000 fliers to hang on doors. The door hangers will include locations of official ballot drop boxes and where to get more information on candidates and ballot measures.
"We know our work is far from done—we still have precincts in Portland with less than 50 percent voter participation," Eudaly wrote in an email to city workers soliciting volunteers. "To protect the integrity of our democracy, we must recognize this plain fact and commit ourselves to action."
While Eudaly's move appears to be legal, the notion of paying city employees to get out the vote is raising eyebrows, particularly since Eudaly has a stake in two of the races on this November's ballot. She was an early champion of Measure 26-201, a proposed tax on businesses to fund clean energy projects. (Her office helped craft the measure.) She also endorsed Jo Ann Hardesty, a candidate for an empty seat on the Portland City Council, who faces Loretta Smith in a runoff.
"At face value, it looks corrupt," says Republican political consultant Jonathan Lockwood, who worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend). Lockwood notes that Democrats control nearly all major offices at the state level and they use their power to maintain control.
Even if Eudaly says her canvass will be nonpartisan, Lockwood says it could have a partisan result: "It would have an impact on the governor's race because it's the highest-profile thing."
Former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, tells WW the program makes him "very nervous."
"On the one hand, I love the idea," says Bradbury. "On the other hand, it's fraught with a lot of questions to make sure you're not doing something partisan."
Such questions include whether the city can ensure that none of its workers who canvass during work hours say anything advocating for or against any candidate or measure. Another issue: where the canvassing will take place.
"I can tell you—as a candidate many, many times—it's critical where you do that work," Bradbury says. "There are some neighborhoods in Portland that are conservative. There are some neighborhoods that are liberal as hell."
Portland election lawyer Dan Meek says Eudaly's proposal is legal but also fraught with potential for abuse. He, too, says picking certain neighborhoods could skew the results.
City employees "could choose to focus the efforts only in areas where voters are more favorable to candidates with particular philosophies," Meek says. "In Portland, for example, focusing [canvassing] efforts on Eastmoreland would skew the resulting vote to the conservative pole. Perhaps focusing on Buckman or Sunnyside or other neighborhoods would do the opposite."
Eudaly's office says it will avoid this pitfall by canvassing only in districts with the lowest turnout based on the last three election cycles.
Oregon law prohibits public employees from political activity on the taxpayer dime. But election lawyers tell WW state law only forbids public employees from taking sides on candidates or measures while on the payroll.
Eudaly's office says city workers will only provide information that there's an election Nov. 6, and only distribute information available from the secretary of state or the county elections office.
"This will be a voluntary, nonpartisan and content-neutral event, with the sole mission of increasing voter participation where turnout has historically been low," Eudaly wrote in her email to city workers.
In response to questions from WW, Eudaly says her office is "using publicly available data and objective metrics to select the locations" and will remind city employees of the law. "It is my expectation that city employees will abide by the rules," she says.
Eudaly says her proposal is not only legal, it's the right thing to do.
"Republicans have historically and systematically used voter suppression as a tactic to influence elections," Eudaly tells WW. "I appreciate Oregon's commitment to increasing voter participation, and am proud of this nonpartisan effort to engage more Portlanders in our democratic processes."
On Oct. 22, Eudaly's office asked Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who oversees elections, to weigh in on the legality of the plan. His office declined, saying it doesn't review programs, only "documents that pertain to a measure, initiative, referendum or candidate.
"The documents you submitted do not appear to pertain to any of these, so these are materials that we typically would not review," Michelle Teed of the Oregon Elections Division emailed the city on Oct. 22.
Multnomah County is in charge of local elections. But the effort is part of Eudaly's oversight of a bureau that seeks to engage the public with government. Formerly called the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the Office of Community & Civic Life is taking a new approach. This small yet dramatic initiative is the first sign of a new direction.
Leaders at the bureau settled on voter turnout as one benchmark they'd seek to improve over the next decade.
At least one city commissioner is not on board. Commissioner Nick Fish, after a briefing by the City Attorney's office and the Portland Parks & Recreation director, has decided to require parks employees to request time off before participating.
"He doesn't want any employees in harm's way with respect to election law," says Fish chief of staff Sonia Schmanski. "It's out of an abundance of caution."
This story has been updated with new information.