Two Weeks Later, Initial Ballot Count Nearly Complete in Clackamas County

More than two weeks after the polls closed in the May 17 primary election, the Clackamas County Elections Office has yet to complete its initial tally of results — but it’s very close.

The county had fewer than 5,000 ballots left to count Tuesday morning after dozens of county employees took shifts copying defective ballots by hand over Memorial Day weekend. More than 3,600 of the remaining ballots still need to be duplicated.

This year’s count was delayed by a massive printing error that rendered the barcodes unreadable on about two-thirds of the ballots sent to the county’s 306,000 registered voters.

This meant the returns on marred ballots had to be hand-duplicated onto clean ones, a herculean task, unprecedented in the state’s history, that has required hundreds of workers from Clackamas and neighboring counties, as well as the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, to be deployed to the elections division over the past two weeks.

The county released a brief statement Tuesday morning announcing the majority of the ballot duplication work, which had begun Monday, May 23, was complete, and workers were turning their attention to processing military and overseas ballots, as well as the results of precinct committee person races.

“The office is also continuing to process ballots needing voter signature resolution, which are due by June 7,” the May 31 statement read. “The Elections Office expects to have all ballots processed by the end of the week and will be on schedule to certify the election by June 13.”

Only one race, the 38th House District, remains too close to call. Neelam Gupta, director of clinical support, integration and workforce at the Oregon Health Authority, led Portland restaurateur Daniel Nguyen by just two votes as of Tuesday morning.

The district, which includes portions of Multnomah and Clackamas counties, is overwhelmingly Democratic.

The printing error predominantly affected the ballots sent to registered Democrats, which significantly delayed results in that party’s primaries, while also causing much confusion in ostensibly nonpartisan races like two Clackamas County commissioner seats.

In the days immediately following the primary, incumbent Paul Savas held a commanding lead over several challengers, the most popular of which was North Clackamas School Board Chair Libra Forde, while incumbent Sonya Fischer badly trailed Wilsonville City Councilor Ben West, a more conservative candidate.

But as more Democratic results have trickled in over the past two weeks, the race between Savas and Forde has tightened significantly, while the one featuring Fischer and West has flipped.

As of Tuesday, Savas and Forde were running neck and neck, with the incumbent holding a one-point advantage and the pair clearly headed for the November runoff. Meanwhile, Fischer has recovered nicely, capturing 47.7% of the vote, though it appears unlikely she will clear the 50% mark necessary to avoid her own runoff with West.

With the HD 38 race headed to an almost-certain recount, candidates and voters in that district could find themselves facing one of the longest waits for final results in Oregon history, according to an analysis by Willamette Week.

Even a state and county suffering through the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history brought much-faster results, needing only four days to report the outcome of the hotly contested 1864 presidential election.

“Interesting to see that Civil War-era Clackamas County was speedier and better organized than 2022 Clackamas County,” a pollster told WW.

The fiasco brought an avalanche of condemnation and scrutiny to the elections division in the state’s third-largest county — coming at a time when election processes, especially for mail-in ballots, are already facing unprecedented levels of skepticism thanks to the loud claims of fraud in 2020 that former President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly failed to substantiate.

As varied commentators as the editorial board of The Oregonian and right-wing radio show host Lars Larson have called on Sherry Hall, the county’s longtime clerk and top elections official, to step down.

Meanwhile, Catherine McMullen, an experienced elections administrator for Multnomah County and Hall’s opponent in the November general election, has received a slew of contributions and endorsements in the fallout from Hall’s latest election blunder.

And while she has not gone so far as to demand Hall’s resignation, few voices have been more public or more critical than Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, whose constitutional role is to certify and audit the results from county election officials.

“I found this quite frustrating and, frankly, outrageous,” Fagan said at a stern news conference last week, when asked if she would push Hall to step down. “My north star, though, as secretary of state is to land this plane. Right now, the only person legally authorized to land this plane under Oregon law is the clerk.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Fagan would use the same adjective to describe last week’s revelation that Hall, who had previously claimed to have no idea how an election observer for Congressman Kurt Schrader entered her office an hour before other poll watchers were allowed in, was actually involved with clearing the official through.

Video footage released through a public records request shows Hall was on hand in the office when the access was granted — and appears to have conversed with the employee who let the Schrader staffer inside.

“It’s absolutely outrageous to stand in front of the public and to say one thing and then to have a video showing something very different,” Fagan said.

Her office was investigating a complaint filed by the campaign of Schrader’s primary opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, though the future of that probe is unclear since McLeod-Skinner was declared the winner in that race.

State Representative Janelle Bynum has also been among those in the Oregon Legislature to call for the House Rules Committee to examine Hall’s lack of action ahead of the election after its results are certified on June 13.

That investigation could result in an effort by lawmakers to change how Clackamas County runs elections, according to Fagan.

Clackamas is the largest county and only one in the Portland metro area with an independently elected county clerk. Both Multnomah and Washington counties have election directors appointed by county commissions.

Because Hall is an independent elected official, neither Fagan nor the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners could force her to accept help that she sorely needed in the weeks leading up to May 17.

Hall knew May 3 that a significant number of ballots would need to be copied by hand before they could be tallied by a machine, but she declined multiple offers of assistance until after Election Night, when Oregonians learned her office had processed fewer than 10% of the votes it had received.

“I definitely think you’ll see the Legislature looking at whether this is the structure that works for such a large county,” Fagan said.

Though it is no doubt the biggest, this is not the first election scandal Hall has endured since she first took office in 2003.

The next year, her office mailed ballots to some 300 voters in Sandy that excluded three questions about land annexation. Hall discovered the error 10 days before the election but failed to alert the public

In 2012, the county had to spend $118,000 to reprint primary ballots after Hall included a measure that wasn’t supposed to be on the ballot until the November election.

The very next year, the state had to oversee how the county was verifying signatures after it was discovered that the county had verified signatures that turned out to be invalid.

And the year after that, in perhaps the most serious indiscretion before now, a worker under Hall’s supervision was discovered filling in choices for Republican candidates on ballots that voters had left blank. The worker was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Through it all, Clackamas County voters have continued to stand by Hall, but it remains to be seen if she can survive this unprecedented storm. Her challenger, McMullen, says the time has come for the county’s electorate to make a change.

“This crisis could have been avoided if Clerk Hall had taken appropriate preventative measures, followed established protocols, caught the blurred barcodes on ballots in quality control,” McMullen said in a statement last week. “Or even after discovering the error, [if she] had mounted a timely or planned response to the printing error.

“There is public recourse and it lies in our electoral process. Clerk Hall is an elected official and the citizens of Clackamas County can vote her out of office in November if she chooses not to resign.”

McMullen praised the work of other county officials and the hundreds of workers from Clackamas and other counties, as well as Fagan’s office, who have come forward help clean up the election mess.

“We can and will rise from this preventable situation by standing together as voters and citizens,” McMullen said, “but we must strengthen our focus and resolve to make our elections work for us this November and vote the current clerk out of office.”

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