"Downtown" Ironside is generally a quiet place, with a stand of mailboxes serving as the post office. The Ironside precinct posted a nearly 100% participation in the 2016 presidential election. All 37 voters registered there cast ballots, but one ballot was rejected. (Les Zaitz/The Enterprise)

VALE – Now, it’s the voters' turn.

Nearly 17,000 voters in Malheur County get their say in helping settle the political question of the year: Who will be president in January 2021?

Ballots were being mailed out this week to a record number of registered voters across the county.

Based on figures as of Oct. 6, the county had 16,757 registered voters – up 2,592 from the last presidential election. Much of that is from registrations by voters not affiliated with any party – a category up 51% from the 2016 election, adding 2,423 voters to the rolls.

Tuesday was the last day to register to vote.

In Malheur County, voters will settle on the newest Malheur County commissioner, whether to return Sheriff Brian Wolfe to office, and whether Vale gets a new mayor. Ballots will carry choices for Oregon Senate, Oregon House, U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

The marquee event is the match-up between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“A lot of people are concerned with the direction of the state and of the country,” said state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who represents Malheur County. “I think we’re going to have a record turnout.”

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said interest in the election is intense and that “the two sides are pretty intense.”

As he travels his sprawling district, he takes a read on the political temperature.

“We are so darned polarized,” Findley said. “It’s entrenched both sides more than they were. That’s a disservice to everybody.”

John Gaskill, chair of the Malheur County Republican Central Committee, said voters may be worn down by the pandemic and the intensity of politics. Still, they need to use their ballot to help settle races from the president to local city councils.

“Their votes make that decision,” said Gaskill. “Whether they vote straight party line or pick the best candidate or whatever process they use, it’s really vitally important that they vote. A few votes here and there in a lot of races can make a huge difference.”

Gaskill isn’t sure how to interpret the surging numbers of voters registered as non-affiliated.

“Maybe people become non-affiliated because they just don’t want to be too closely aligned with political parties and maybe don’t want to be bombarded by political contacts,” he said.

Sammy Castonguay, chair of the Malheur County Democratic Central Committee, said the Democrats realize they are in the minority and thinks more progressive voters in Malheur County could find a political home in the party.

He said he senses “a lot of people are doing individual activism,” not necessarily in support of a particular political party. “I get the sense that there’s a lot of undirected political energy.”

In 2016, Trump walked away with Malheur County, taking 70% of the votes.

That year, 75% of Malheur County voters participated, slightly under the overall state participation of 80%.

Voter turnout varied widely among the county’s 24 precincts.

The highest turnout in 2016 was in rural Ironside, where 37 of 37 eligible voters cast their ballots. One ballot was rejected, leaving a 97.3% participation rate. Other high participation rates were posted in Arock (92.7%) and Juntura (92.6%).

The lowest turnout was in the east portion of Ontario, were little more than half the voters -55.9% - participated. Nyssa posted the second-worst turnout rate at 62.5%.

And 171 people who turned in ballots skipped voting for president.

Ballots are due by Tuesday, Nov. 3. Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter advises people to mail their ballots back no later than Tuesday, Oct. 27. After that, they can be deposited into ballot boxes around the county.

Trotter also urges voters to pay careful attention to the balloting instructions, including how to use the secrecy envelope and where to sign the ballot. In 2016, 201 ballots were rejected for various flaws. In the May primary this year, 119 ballots were rejected.

Gaskill and Castonguay said the national discussion about election fraud could have an impact on Oregon voters thought vote-by-mail has been the rule for 20 years.

Gaskill said Oregon is in “good shape” for mail-in balloting though he worries that “some people are going to listen to that chatter” about possible fraud.

“The track record in Oregon has not been marred by any degree of fraud,” he said.

“I don’t see an issue in Oregon,” he said, and said the Malheur County clerk’s office “does a fine job” processing ballots.

Castonguay said Oregon’s balloting is safe from fraud.

“Your mailbox is your ballot box in Oregon,” he said.

He said the Democratic party in the state will work to reduce any fear that something has changed in Oregon’s voting.

“Nothing is different,” he said.

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