Clackamas County is shifting hundreds of workers to the aid of the beleaguered elections office, which is buried under an estimated 80,000 ballots that have yet to be tallied and reported from Tuesday’s primary election — about two-thirds of which must be painstakingly duplicated by hand due to a barcode printing error.
Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith made the announcement during a live press conference Wednesday afternoon from commission chambers, describing it as the county’s “No. 1 priority.”
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” she said. “Here at Clackamas County, we are people who know how to pull our boots on and get the job done for our residents. Nothing less is expected from our own county clerk, Sherry Hall, who said she is committed to providing updated results daily until all votes are counted.”
Smith said County Administrator Gary Schmidt has temporarily reassigned 200 employees from other areas of the county, who will be staggered in two six-hour shifts starting Thursday morning, and will commit more if requested.
“We have offered 1,000 employees,” Smith told reporters. “If it takes 1,000 employees, then we’ll send over 1,000 people to do this. We had 200 volunteer this morning, just like that. If we need more, we will do more.”
She slammed Hall on several occasions and appeared to lay the blame for Tuesday night’s issues, which thrust Clackamas County into unflattering headlines around the state and nation, solely at her feet.
“This was a big mistake,” Smith said. “It was a huge mistake, and it’s not one I’m happy with at all, but this was the hand we were dealt. We have to fix it, and we have to move forward.”
She repeatedly clarified that Hall is an independent elected official, whose work is not directly overseen by Smith or the other commissioners. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has offered additional personnel to assist Clackamas, as have two other county elections offices, but Smith said it is up to the clerk to accept the help.
“It is on Sherry Hall,” she said. “She is the one that runs the elections division. We’re just ensuring that we have adequate resources available to ensure the ballots are counted in an accurate, timely and secure manner.”
Like Fagan, who blasted the county election office in a statement Tuesday night, Smith pointed out that Hall was aware of the printing issue as early as May 3, when her team ran its first batch of 125 ballots — around 75 of which were rejected due to unreadable barcodes.
“This was no surprise,” she said. “They have known about the blurred barcodes for weeks. They must take the steps necessary to correct this problem they knew about weeks ago.”
Hall had admitted, in an earlier emergency meeting with commissioners, that she did not assign anywhere near enough workers to handle the unprecedented task of manually duplicating tens of thousands of ballots over the past couple of weeks.
She also said workers did not process ballots over the weekend because most did not want to work.
Compounding the issue — though Smith characterized it as the “bright side to this situation” — turnout was unusually high for a midterm primary race, with thousands of new ballots pouring in on Election Day.
“That tells me that the voters have faith in our process and the assurances given that their voices will be handled securely and carefully,” Smith said. “The most critical outcome right now is honoring those who have voted [by getting] the final, verified numbers and securely as possible.”
Smith said turnout is predicted to be about 30% — or around 90,000 ballots — only 10,000 of which were tallied as of 8 p.m. Tuesday. An estimated two-thirds of the ballots voters have turned in have the printing error, with the mistake appearing to disproportionately affect Democratic ballots.
Even with the hundreds of temporary election workers, officials were unable to provide clear estimates of when to expect results from Clackamas County.
The Oregonian projected, based on one anecdotal report of a team of two election workers hand-copying 144 ballots in a six-hour period, that the earliest results could be expected would be Monday, May 23, and that assumes the work continues through the weekend.
Counties are required to submit their final, certified results by June 13.
Smith said she will continue to monitor the duplicating and counting of ballots and encouraged Clackamas County voters to visit the elections office and observe the proceedings if they have any concerns.
The Clackamas County Elections Office can be reached by phone at 503-655-8510 and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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