Helen Gunn's first involvement in elections began as a young girl helping prepare potluck dishes for the workers who staffed the polling place at her parents' Astoria home.

That was back before World War II, but it helped instill a devotion to the voting process she's kept ever since.

Gunn, her husband George and several other volunteer workers were honored for their services to the Clatsop County Elections Department at a ceremony Wednesday attended by Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.

The event served as both a thank-you to the election volunteers, and the unveiling of the new offices at 820 Exchange St. that will house elections and the assessment and taxation department.

The space is on the second floor of the building, the former PeaceHealth clinic that Clatsop County purchased in 2002. The county Health and Human Services Department moved into the building's first floor last year.

The volunteer election workers process ballots - open envelopes, verify signatures, make duplicates of damaged ballots, and count write-in votes when necessary.

Over the years, Oregon has gone from polling places and punch-card ballots to vote-by-mail and optical-scanned ballots, but the volunteer election staff remain vital to the whole process, Bradbury said. His office came up with the idea of honoring election workers after a state elections official discovered some volunteers with more than 50 years of service.

"We depend on you to be able to do honest, fair elections," he said. "This kind of devotion and dedication to service is really incredible."

Chief Deputy Clerk Nicole Williams pointed to the years of experience the county's volunteer force brings to the job.

"Five years ago I started as head of the elections department, and it didn't take long for these people to train me," she said. "By law, we're required to have training for elections workers every two years, but they humor me and sit through it. It's funny training people who know it all."

The process often requires long hours, said Williams, who remembered one election that kept workers busy until 4 a.m. the following morning.

Those honored Wednesday included eight people - George Gunn, Bonnie Harris, Nancy Hauger, Ruth Matteucci, Benjamin Morlock, Helena Reierson, LaVonne Wait and Tom Wilcox - recognized for 10 or more years of service to the county, and four - Helen Gunn, Ilene Jackson, Jeanne Pike, Nancy Wilcox - honored for 20-plus years.

The state rented private homes for polling places for elections until World War II, and it was at her parents' house that Helen Gunn first saw the electoral system up close and personal. A World War II veteran like her husband, she said she's inspired to offer her services to the elections department by "the love my folks instilled in us to serve our country," she said.

Deon Harris and his wife Bonnie worked as election volunteers in other cities, and signed up with Clatsop County when they moved to Astoria. "We've always enjoyed the process," he said.

Harris said Oregon's vote-by-mail system has made the process more flexible, allowing workers to start processing ballots before election day, although the actual counting still waits for election day.

The new space for the elections and assessment and taxation departments were developed as part of the county's strategy to move the departments out of their old quarters in the county courthouse and create more convenient, "one-stop-shop" service for county residents. The offices will even include a secure, 24-hour drive-up drop box to make it easier for voters to turn in their completed ballots.

The assessment and taxation department is set to move to the new offices the week of May 3, but because the county is in the middle of the May primary election process, the elections department can't move to the new space until that work is completed, so the ballots will be processed and counted in the old assessment and taxation office in the courthouse. The department will probably move to the new space in June.

The new offices aren't a great deal larger overall than the courthouse quarters, but it's a much more user-friendly space, with desks and furnishings sized for individual employees, said Finance Director Mike Robison. It will also allow better interaction between the departments' staff, and a central customer service area will make it easier for people to access records.


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