Clackamas Clerk Sherry Hall on Wednesday afternoon accepted responsibility for significant delays in addressing a known problem with the vote count for the primary election, while seeming to dodge questions about blame, accountability and exactly what led to the issues that have cast an unflattering national spotlight on the elections operations of Oregon’s third-most populous county.
Two days after the polls closed, just 15,000 of the estimated 95,000 ballots Clackamas County voters returned have been tallied and reported, leaving the results of at least one major race — the Democratic primary between U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader and challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner — in doubt, along with many other local and regional ones.
“I am the clerk, and it is my responsibility,” Hall said in a live press conference from the county commission hearing room Wednesday afternoon. “I absolutely don’t like what happened, but it did happen, so we had to come up with a solution.”
But when reporters pressed her about why she did not do more to plan for or address a printing error that would require the manual duplication of tens of thousands of ballots — a problem her office knew about at least as early as May 3 — or accept earlier offers of help from other county offices, she equivocated.
At one point, she seemed to suggest the age of volunteer election workers was partially to blame for the lack of results her office showed on Election Night — before commissioners and County Administrator Gary Schmidt funneled hundreds of reassigned workers her way in an effort to speed up the proceedings.
At another, she said her office’s seeming lack of urgency in the matter stemmed from “lots of interruptions” over the past couple of weeks, including from media requests.
“We have spent a lot of time just trying to figure things out,” she said. “There has been a lot of interruptions, too. The press really has been in the office a lot, and, um, there’s just lot of interruptions.”
When a reporter asked if she was blaming the press, she quickly backpedaled.
“No, I’m just saying, there’s a whole bunch of things that have come up that have had to be addressed,” Hall said. “And, um, you guys are great because you get the word out — accurately — right?”
Hall also seemed to misunderstand laws governing overtime for county workers and public records requirements, telling a reporter she didn’t believe she could answer a question about what company printed the faulty ballots.
The printer was Moonlight BPO in Bend and, like most contracts involving a government entity, the details of its financial arrangement with the county is public record.
Asked what she would say to frustrated voters who feel her office has mishandled the situation, Hall suggested they come and observe the duplication process.
“Anyone is invited to come and watch what we do,” she said. “Anyone is welcome to come in and watch everything that we do, and if they want to see certain things, like the duplicated ballots, we can show you a pair or many pairs so that you can see that they’re the same.”
And when she was asked if she thought the gaffe would affect her own re-election bid in November, for which she will face at least one opponent, she skirted the question.
“It’s not something I really think about,” she said. “Lots of things affect lots of things, and we’ll just see what happens.”
The duplication process involves teams of two people from differing political parties transferring each smudged ballot’s votes onto a new ballot that can be read by a vote-counting machine.
One person reads the ballot’s votes aloud, and the other transfers the votes onto a new ballot. Then they switch roles to check the work and verify that no mistakes have been made. The misprinted ballot is then indexed and audited later.
The process is prescribed by Oregon law and has been used before when a ballot arrives damaged in the mail or by the voter themselves (such as a spill), but has never been done on this scale in state history.
As of Tuesday night, the county had received 91,547 ballots, which would represent a turnout rate of 29.89%, and under a new Oregon law, any ballots postmarked before or on Election Day that arrive within seven days must also be counted. Hall said she expects turnout to top 95,000 before all is said and done.
The county has until certification day, June 13, to fully reprocess the misprinted ballots and close out the election results.
The latest election results from Clackamas County, posted about a half-hour after Hall wrapped up Wednesday’s presser, did little to affect open races.
As expected, the top three Republican candidates for governor — Christine Drazan, Bob Tiernan and Stan Pulliam — are running strong in Clackamas County, which is the home base for all three.
Tens of thousands of ballots remain uncounted in the race, but their positions in the county results — first, second and third, respectively — mirror the ones statewide and would not affect the outcome at this point. And, at any rate, both Pulliam and Tiernan had conceded as of Wednesday afternoon.
In the 5th District primary, McLeod-Skinner had a lead of slightly less than 10,000 votes over Schrader, with the vast majority of her support coming from Deschutes County and a tiny southern sliver of Multnomah.
But in Clackamas County, Schrader’s longtime base, some-40,000 Democratic ballots remain uncounted. Schrader has won 57% of the votes that have been tallied in Clackamas so far.
Incumbent State Representative and Canby Planning Commission Vice Chair James Hieb is maintaining his strong lead over challenger Lisa Davidson, a longtime business consultant, in the Republican primary for House District 51, which includes Canby.
Hieb has captured slightly less than 60% of the 1,800 votes that have been tallied so far, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 remaining. Walter Trandum, a caregiver and precinct committee person, was unopposed for the Democratic primary.
State Representative Daniel Bonham, of The Dalles, was also holding a strong lead in his bid to secure the Republican nomination for Senate District 26, a district newly encompassing Canby and The Dalles, with 65% of the vote. Democrat Raz Mason, also of The Dalles, was also unopposed.
In countywide races, incumbent Commissioner Paul Savas (41.8%) maintained a large but gradually dwindling lead over a cadre of challengers led by North Clackamas School Board Chair Libra Forde (22.7%), as did Wilsonville City Councilor Ben West (45.1%) in his quest to capture the seat of incumbent Sonya Fischer (36.4%).
But with an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 votes still to tabulate, the majority of them registered Democrats, the results could very well change in the days to come.
If any candidate secures at least 50% of the vote, they will win the seat outright. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters in each race will move on to a runoff in the November midterms.
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