Complaints mount as delays drag on for Clackamas ballot counting
County Clerk Sherry Hall, catching criticism for the fumbles, offered few assurances Friday about when the task would be done
Elections workers process ballots at the Marion County Clerk’s Office in Salem on Monday, May 16. Each ballot goes through several steps before it is scanned to have the vote tabulated. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
A top Clackamas County official ordered all employees to pitch in at the county elections office, one congressional campaign complained of unequal treatment and a legislator demanded an inquiry as ballot-counting issues continue to delay election results from Oregon’s third largest county.
By Thursday evening, the last time Clackamas County updated election results, it had tallied about 27,300 ballots – less than 30% of the more than 90,000 the county expects to receive. All other counties have already finished counting at least 70% of their ballots, while ballots postmarked on or before Election Day continue to arrive.
The delay in Clackamas County affects multiple local races and a race that could end seven-term Congressman Kurt Schrader’s political career. Schrader, a Democrat from Clackamas County, trails progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner elsewhere in the 5th Congressional District, but 45% of Democratic primary voters live in Clackamas County and a particularly strong showing there could save the incumbent.
Voters, candidates and election officials knew before the May 17 primary that Clackamas County results would be delayed because of a ballot printing issue identified May 3, after ballots were mailed, that required election workers to copy votes by hand to new ballots that could be read by machines. About two-thirds of the ballots returned need to be duplicated.
“All I can say is that I said I would do it.”
– Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall in response to questions about how voters can trust she'll meet a statutory deadline to finish counting ballots
But an increasingly irate Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, Clackamas County commissioners and other observers are blaming poor decisions by Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall for the extent of the delay.
“Unfortunately, Clackamas County Elections did not respond to this crisis with appropriate urgency during the past two weeks,” Fagan said Friday. “Voters and candidates deserve timely and predictable results, which we have not seen so far.”
During a Friday afternoon press conference, Hall offered few assurances that she’ll manage to finish counting ballots before a legal deadline on June 13.
“All I can say is that I said I would do it,” she said. “I’ll have it done by June 13 because that is the state law deadline for this election.”
County employees, including those who don’t work in Hall’s office, will work through the weekend to process ballots, verifying signatures and preparing them for duplication. But no duplication of additional ballots will happen until Monday.
“I didn’t respond to this with the urgency that I should have and I realize that, but I still know that we will have the counting done on time,” said Hall, who has supervised Clackamas County elections since 2003.
But she didn’t explain why she didn’t respond urgently.
Hall ignored offers of help from the state and other county clerks until Thursday night and Friday morning.
Clackamas County Administrator Gary Schmidt on Thursday asked all county employees to sign up for shifts in the election office through Friday, June 3.
Meanwhile, a state representative from Clackamas County is seeking a legislative investigation into the issues. Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, said Thursday she wants the House Rules Committee to begin investigating what happened as soon as the election is certified on June 13.
And McLeod-Skinner’s campaign alleged in a complaint filed Thursday with the state Elections Division that a Schrader campaign observer had earlier access than her campaign to observe ballot counting.
All hands on deck
Schmidt, the Clackamas County administrator, volunteered 200 non-election county employees on Wednesday. By 1 p.m. Thursday, he was asking every employee to work at least one six-hour shift.
“We need more help,” Schmidt wrote in a county-wide email. “I am now redeploying ALL County employees to work in the Elections Office as part of the ballot-counting process. This supersedes any other county work right now, outside of essential, critical county functions.”
A Clackamas County spokeswoman by midday Friday could not specifically provide the number of employees who could be redeployed, what departments they are in and how disruptive that could be to county services.
“Essential county business including public safety will not be disrupted as county employees support ballot processing,” spokeswoman Kimberly Dinwiddie-Webb said in an email Thursday night.
About 1,800 employees are listed in the county directory, with a wide range of jobs including enforcing building codes, appraising taxes and sheltering dogs. Dinwiddie-Webb added that staff working in county health clinics will not be reassigned to the elections office.
During a virtual press conference Friday afternoon, she said 200 employees had signed up for shifts and about 120 were working Friday.
Clerks in Marion and Yamhill counties volunteered help. Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess told the Capital Chronicle he’s planning to work in Clackamas County on Saturday and a few other Marion County election board temporary workers were willing to work over the weekend and next week. County attorneys are working out legal questions about how best to handle employees of one county working for another, Burgess said.
Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen said he offered ballot paper or printing services because Clackamas County has to print the duplicate ballots on site, but Clackamas County didn’t need either. Yamhill County election workers are also willing to work in Clackamas County, but they’re waiting to hear when to work and what political parties are needed. Ballot duplication requires bipartisan teams, and the work is primarily done by volunteers or temporary workers.
“We’ve sent the word out to our staff trying to get folks prepared and trying to get their schedules in order,” Van Bergen said. “So we’re still kind of in limbo between the two ends of that conversation.”
Hall said Friday that she is also accepting help from the elections office in Clark County, Washington, and the secretary of state. She had not yet accepted such offers Friday morning, when Fagan said she asked Hall to send her a written plan showing how she’ll use the additional staff and a timeline showing when the work will be done, which Hall said she won’t provide until Monday.
Representatives of political parties and campaigns, the press and members of the public can 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 filed Thursday.
The McLeod-Skinner observer, Spencer Trumm, showed up at 8:05 a.m. and was told to wait until the building opened at 8:30 a.m., according to the complaint. When he was allowed in around that time, he found Schrader’s election observer already in the observation room.
According to a sign-in sheet, Schrader’s observer had been in the room since 7:30 a.m. Hall told Trumm he couldn’t take a picture of the sign-in sheet, though it is a public record, 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.
“I don’t know how someone got in at seven on the day that’s being talked about,” she said.
An election observer who viewed the process Thursday and Friday noted other potential security issues, including election workers bringing purses and shopping bags into the room where ballots are counted and election workers eating lunch in a separate room with trays of ballots.
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.”
Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, told the 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.”
As the Clackamas County ballot duplication and vote tallying drags on, some questioned why the county is duplicating ballots instead of manually tallying the originals. It comes down to security and time.
People just aren’t as good at machines at repetitive tasks like counting votes, so there’s more possibility for error.
Hand recounts are part of the post-election audit process. The secretary of state randomly selects contests and precincts or batches of ballots, and counties have several days to complete that hand count.
It’s not as simple as having one person read ballots and mark off on a separate piece of paper which candidates received votes. Instead, Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen said, state guidelines require four people to work through ballots in batches of four. They then recount that batch and compare results.
“It’s an immensely time-consuming process that normally takes a week to do one contest,” Van Bergen said. “And since there’s 20 to 30 contests on each ballot, we’re talking like January next year before they’d be done if they had to hand-count all the contests.”
In 2014, counties had to recount by hand all ballots after a controversial ballot measure on genetically engineered foods failed by just a few hundred votes statewide. Election workers only needed to look at one question on the ballot with four options: yes, no, an overvote or an undervote, and yet it was still time-consuming, Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said.
Clackamas County ballots could contain more than a dozen races with multiple candidates, depending on a voter’s political affiliation and where they live.
Duplicating a ballot is a two-person job. One person reads the votes on the original ballot to the other, who copies them to a blank ballot. They then switch roles, with the person who filled out the duplicate ballot reading those votes aloud to compare to the original.
Duplicating ballots also creates a paper trail for recounts or post-election audits. Original and duplicated ballots are marked with unique ID codes so they can be paired together even if they’re physically separated.
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