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Unexpected turnout

Educators in Portland, Ore., breathed a sigh of relief last week, after Multnomah County election officials declared a $78 million, five-year tax levy had passed—nearly a week after widespread reports that it had failed because of insufficient voter turnout. ("Five Ore. Districts OK Local-Option Taxes in Mail-In Vote," May 24, 2000.)

Benjamin Canada

The surprise reversal had to do with the complex process for verifying "eligible" voters in Oregon's mail-in elections. Under state law, property-tax increases for schools must meet a dual threshold: a majority of voters must favor the tax hike, and at least 50 percent of eligible voters must cast ballots.

When ballots are mailed out, if a person has moved, their ballot is returned as "undeliverable." Election officials have 30 days to determine whether those people have updated their registration and should be counted as part of the eligible voting pool.

"This is the first one I can remember where it's made a difference," said Vicki K. Ervin, the director of elections for Multnomah County. "Usually, your turnout is pretty clear- cut."

In Portland, it initially appeared that 65 percent of voters who cast ballots approved of the tax hike, but just under 49 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Once election officials did their research, said Ms. Ervin, "we had enough undeliverable ballots that it happened to make a difference."

Portland officials will use the money to hire 170 more teachers, replace textbooks, and restore lost programs next year. "The children of Portland are the real winners today," said city schools Superintendent Benjamin Canada.

As part of a measure on the November ballot to improve school funding, Gov. John Kitzhaber would provide what amounts to a property-tax subsidy for poor districts, making it easier for them to pass "local option" tax hikes like the one just approved in Portland.

—Lynn Olson

Vol. 19, Issue 38, Page 16

Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as State Journal

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