Complaints Mount as Delays Drag on for Clackamas Ballot Counting

The hand-duplication of some-60,000 to 70,000 ballots in Clackamas County — a monumental task that was initially expected to begin Thursday morning with the influx of hundreds of reassigned workers — will not actually start until Monday, May 23, at the earliest, Clerk Sherry Hall told reporters Friday.

The news of the latest delay came as one congressional campaign complained of unequal treatment, a state lawmaker demanded a legislative inquiry and an increasingly irate Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and other officials blamed Hall for the unprecedented election failure in Oregon’s third-largest county.

“Unfortunately, Clackamas County Elections did not respond to this crisis with appropriate urgency during the past two weeks,” Fagan said in a statement Friday morning. “Voters and candidates deserve timely and predictable results, which we have not seen so far.”

It was a point Hall appeared to concede in her own virtual scrum with reporters later that day.

“I didn’t respond to this with the urgency that I should have and I realized that,” she said. “But I still know that we will have the counting done on time.”

Asked why county residents should have confidence her office will, in fact, manage to deliver final, certified results by the state’s June 13 deadline, she seemed exasperated.

“I really have nothing more to say because I’ve said it will be done,” said Hall, who earns $112,700 a year as clerk and has supervised Clackamas County elections since 2003. “All I can say is that I said I would do it. I’ll have it done by June 13 because that is the state law deadline for this election.”

Clackamas County voters had returned an estimated 113,500 ballots by Friday, only 32,000 of which had been tallied and reported as of 6 p.m.

An estimated two-thirds of the ballots are not machine-readable due to a misprinted barcode, which Hall knew about at least as early as May 3, but took few steps to address, blaming vague “interruptions” for her failure to prepare for the known problems.

The missteps have left results unknown in key contests including Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, a nationally watched race in which incumbent U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader, a Democrat, appears to have lost to progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner, and many other local and regional races.

Hall agreed this week to accept help from as many as 200 county employees who will be reassigned from other departments and trained to duplicate the damaged ballots. Election workers from Clark, Marion and Washington counties as well as the secretary of state’s office have also agreed to pitch in with the effort.

Because of the blurry barcodes, the votes must be duplicated by hand onto clean ballots, which is a painstaking, time-consuming process. The procedure, prescribed under Oregon law, requires election workers to work in teams of two with different political affiliations and take turns reading and checking ballots to ensure accuracy.

It’s a process the county has used in the past when ballots arrived damaged in the mail or by the voters themselves (such as a spill), but has never been done on this scale in state history.

Using the anecdotal experience of election officials who participated in the process this week, The Oregonian estimates it would take six to seven days to duplicate all of the marred ballots, which would mean the proceedings should conclude around Sunday, May 29, assuming the work does start Monday and continue through the weekend.

Though the totals are not yet known, the gaffe will certainly cost the county and taxpayers thousands in materials and increased labor costs.

Meanwhile, McLeod-Skinner’s campaign alleged in a formal complaint filed Thursday with the state Elections Division that a Schrader campaign observer had earlier access than her campaign to observe ballot counting.

Representatives of political parties and campaigns, the press and members of the public may legally observe ballot processing and counting from designated areas. Counties can’t give priority access to one campaign.

But when McLeod-Skinner’s observer arrived at the county election office in Oregon City on Thursday, he discovered that Schrader’s observer had already been in the room for an hour, according to the complaint.

“We expect county elections officials to uphold the integrity of our elections, including compliance with their elections security plans and providing equal access to our elections observers, as it builds trust in our election process,” McLeod-Skinner said in a statement.

“We look forward to hearing the final results and are grateful for the hardworking staff and volunteers. Above all, the state must ensure that every Oregonian’s vote is counted.”

Hall said Friday that she was taking the complaint “very seriously” and will turn over the sign-in sheets to McLeod-Skinner’s campaign. She said it’s “possible” that the Schrader observer followed an employee into the building through an employee door, but that she didn’t consider it a security breach.

More bad news for Hall and the county elections office also came Thursday, when Representative Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, said she wants the House Rules Committee to begin investigating what happened as soon as the election is certified on June 13.

Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, wants legislative investigators to examine Hall’s lack of action ahead of the election.

“Despite having time to prepare for an election day disaster, Ms. Hall has repeatedly failed to adapt and accept enough help to remedy the current crisis,” Bynum said in a statement. “When voters cast their ballots, they deserve efficient, transparent, and integrity-driven processes to determine who wins those elections.”

Senator Bill Kennemer, a longtime Canby-area representative who lost the district in the state’s latest reapportionment process, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle he was disappointed and frustrated, but still confident in the eventual election results. He doesn’t think the Legislature should take any action until after Fagan’s office has a chance to investigate, he said.

“Then if we in the Legislature have concerns, we can do further inquiry, but I think we need to see what Secretary Fagan has to say and see what we can do to prevent this kind of mistake in the future,” he said.

The delayed results could deepen distrusts among people who already generally doubt election results, he said.

Kennemer said it’s important voters know that election workers have established ways to deal with ballots that need to be duplicated, and that they’re verified in a way that guarantees accuracy.

“I don’t think that ultimately there’s going to be a problem with the integrity of the election,” he said. “But one of the key requirements of an election is that it be timely, and that has not occurred. It’s not been timely.”

Hall on Friday said that Clackamas County planned to sever ties with Moonlight BPO, the Bend-based printing company the county’s used to create ballots for the last decade.

“This printer we’ve used for 10 years and have never had a problem,” she said. “We were shocked with this one. I don’t intend to ever use them again.”

The Oregon Capital Chronicle contributed to this report. Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity.

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