An unknown number of Clackamas County ballots for the May 17 primary election were sent — and returned — with defective barcodes, officials reported this week, an error that will cost the county extra money and could delay results.
Longtime Clerk Sherry Hall announced Wednesday that an error by the county’s contracted printer had caused the barcodes on some ballots to be blurred and unreadable by the automatic processing equipment. Election officials didn’t notice the error before the ballots were sent to voters.
The ballots are valid and will be counted, Hall assured voters in the news release, but will have to be tallied manually in a routine but painstaking process that officials expect will add to the already heavy workload on county elections personnel.
Under this process, which has been routinely used in the past for ballots damaged in the mail or by the voters themselves (spills, etc.), at least two election workers of different political parties will participate in the process of copying the votes of the defective ballots onto new ballots for processing.
Election observers will witness the process and the county will keep the damaged ballots on file, Hall said. The clerk said she did not know how many ballots were affected by the printing error, but told The Oregonian that approximately 6 in 10 of the first 400 ballots the county attempted to process Wednesday were rejected.
“It is our objective to count every validly cast vote in this election and every election. Our voters are entitled to expect nothing less,” Hall stated. “We have plans and procedures in place to competently and correctly respond to this situation and many others.”
The defective bar codes do not identify voters nor do they relate in any way to voters’ selections on candidates or measures, Hall said. The code merely identifies the “ballot style” so that the equipment can tally the votes in the correct elections.
Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith said in a statement Friday that she was “aghast” when she heard about the misprints.
“Many questions came through my mind: ‘Is my ballot secure?’ ‘Will my vote count?’ ‘How can I trust government to do what is right?'” she said. “Nothing is more honorable and sacred than the integrity of elections and full trust in the outcome. Regardless of intent or innocence of a mistake, there will be lingering questions about this election and the process used to remedy the situation.”
If there were time or the legal ability to do so, Smith said she would call for the ballots to be reprinted and resent, but that is not possible. Smith admitted that election results could be delayed by the sheer volume of affected ballots, which is not fully known at this time.
“As chair of the Clackamas County Commission, I do not have authority over the elected county clerk,” Smith said. “However, my most important job is to build public trust in government. You can rest assured I am always pushing for accountability and transparency in future elections.”
This is not the first time Clackamas County has suffered technical woes during a hotly anticipated election cycle. Indeed, just two years ago, the clerk’s office reported an equipment failure with an automatic envelope opener mere hours before the polls closed on Election Day — though the issue ultimately did not impact the county’s ability to tally or report results.
Other more serious issues include a 2010 printing error affecting a commissioner’s race that cost the county more than $100,000 in reprinting costs, and the hiring of a temporary elections worker in 2013 who was later convicted of election fraud for filling in blank spaces on two ballots with Republican candidates.
Hall, who has held the elected county clerk position since 2003, is being challenged this year by Catherine McMullen, who serves as a program specialist for the Multnomah County Elections Division and is certified as an elections administrator. The nonpartisan race will be on the November ballot.
In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, McMullen blasted Hall for what she called a “litany of election mistakes” during her opponent’s tenure as county clerk. She characterized the reporting of a county error on the eve of a big election as “almost de rigeur.”
McMullen went on to estimate that, if the error ultimately affected only 10% of ballots, it would cost the county an additional $50,000 to $100,000 to tally the results.
“These types of mistakes are preventable and erode trust between the citizens and our democratic processes,” she said in a statement. “It is crucial to stop these costly errors so our elections can run smoothly, securely, and transparently.”
For further information, contact Clackamas County Elections at 503-655-8510.
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