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Freshman legislator to face Republican opposition as he mulls reforms to signature verification process in elections

State Rep. Mark Meek (D-Gladstone) announced last week that he will seek re-election in 2018 and is considering the introduction of legislation in the upcoming session to ensure that citizens' votes are counted.

Mark MeekMeanwhile, Josh Hill announced that he will be seeking the Republican Party nomination to challenge Meek for the district that includes Oregon City, Gladstone, Johnson City, and parts of unincorporated Clackamas County. Hill said that he is still working on his campaign website, which is not quite ready to go live.

Meek was horrified to see how the practice of election office rejecting ballot signatures has disenfranchised voters, as uncovered by an investigation by Pamplin Media last week. Election workers in Clackamas County were especially apt to reject "mismatched" signatures, the data showed, leading to a greater proportion of local cases in which citizens were kicked off the voter rolls after their votes weren't counted.

"That frustrates me and I don't like that practice," Meek said. "I don't like hearing that people are not able to vote."

SCREEN SHOT OF THE OREGON VOTE BY MAIL PROCEDURES MANUAL - A section of Oregon Administrative Rules seems to encourage elections officials not to count the ballot of an elderly man after his handwriting deteriorated.Meek was especially surprised to see a section of the state's administrative rules that encourage elections officials to disqualify votes for elderly people if their signatures have changed too much due to advancing age. In addition to requiring old people to re-register due to changing signatures, Meek pointed out that women are more likely to change their last names.

"It's a flawed system that discriminates, which is a worrisome issue also," Meek said.

Meek will be discussing a potential piece of legislation with Gov. Kate Brown, herself a former secretary of state who was in charge of the Oregon Elections Division. The bill would direct county elections officials to count the votes of any signed ballots and only spend time comparing signatures in cases of reported voter fraud.

"There are definitely inconsistencies, and if there are abuses across the election system, then I think this legislation would get a lot of support," Meek said. "If we get some complaint and something that needs to be investigated, we have those ballots on hand to compare signatures."

Generally a supporter of Oregon's voting system, Meek said the nation should go to voting by mail, because there's a paper trail, unlike with electronic systems. Meek expects he would receive opposition to his potential bill to reform the system, largely from Republicans who say that the signature-verification process discourages voter fraud. Former Speaker of the House Lynn Snodgrass opposed the vote-by-mail system and ran unsuccessfully for Oregon Secretary of State in 2000. The Republican represented District 10, which included her hometown of Boring as well as urban unincorporated Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, Estacada, and portions of Oregon City and Gresham.

Meek challenged Sherry Hall for the Clackamas County elections clerk position in 2014. He's not sure which replacement candidate he will officially endorse for the 2018 election, but he will wait until after the March filing deadline to make the endorsement.

"I was very pleased too see that Pamela White was running for county clerk, and we do need to see some new leadership there," Meek said. "I think she's a very strong and qualified candidate."

Hall said she would welcome more attention from legislators about the elections office. She invites any voters with concerns about the elections to tour the process, and says that after these tours voters generally feel better. She said that she reaches out particularly to local elected officials, but they rarely take her up on her offer of a tour of the elections office.

Meek said that has taken the election's office tour and was most surprised to see a stack of ballots that wouldn't be counted due to "mismatched signatures." He said that it made a lot more sense that the elections office weren't counting another stack of ballots that were missing signatures altogether.

Meek was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in Nov. 2016, defeating his Republican opponent by nearly eight points in one of Oregon's most competitive house districts. Republicans are hoping that the seat isn't safe for Meek, not just because he's a freshman legislator.

Hill, Meek's potential Republican challenger, said that the tenant-protection bill supported by Meek will be a major talking point of the campaign. A 2013 political science graduate from Linfield College who moved to Oregon City about a year and a half ago, Hill has worked for a West Linn-based packaging company for the past three years.

"I'm excited for the opportunity to be the voice of District 40," Hill said. "I'm not quite ready to share my campaign platform with you, but I should be able to soon."

Meek upset fellow landlord/investors by supporting a bill to lift a statewide ban on rent control. In writing an amendment to the tenant-protection bill passed by the House, he pared mandatory relocation assistance payments to tenants from the equivalent of three-months rent to one-month rent. The amendment also exempts landlords who own fewer than five units from having to pay tenants relocation fees in certain no-fault evictions. Eventually the bill was again watered down by the Oregon Senate to exclude the ability of local municipalities to pass rent-control measures.

Meek said he was honored to serve the people of House District 40 and is eager to continue working to ensure the community has a strong voice and advocate in Salem. He is a longtime Gladstone resident, Realtor and small-business owner. He has coached high school football, served on the Clackamas County Planning Commission and was chair of the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce.

"I am proud of the progress we made this legislative session," Meek said. "I am committed to continue fighting for the families and working people of our community."

Meek is a supporter of the re-opening of the Willamette Falls Locks and revitalizing Oregon City's waterfront through the new public path to the falls. His legislative priorities included new investments in education and veterans' services, protecting seniors in long-term care and expanding the supply of affordable housing.

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