Clackamas County still struggling to count ballots a week after Election Day

Almost half of the county’s more than 116,000 ballots remained uncounted by Tuesday night

By: - May 24, 2022 5:03 pm

Secured ballot boxes await processing by workers at the Marion County Clerk’s Office in Salem on Monday, May 16. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 24, 2022 at 8 p.m.

Oregonians likely won’t know the results of the May 17 election in Clackamas County until the weekend, or possibly until June.

A memo Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall sent Secretary of State Shemia Fagan on Tuesday evening said it will take the county between four and nine days to finish duplicating more than 38,000 ballots that need to be copied by hand because of printing errors.

Fagan last week asked Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall to produce  a written plan and timeline explaining how she would ensure the county finished processing more than 116,000 ballots before a June 13 deadline to certify the election results as final and official.

Hall missed her deadline last Friday, asked Monday for another day and didn’t submit her memo until late Tuesday. She still didn’t include a proposed timeline, but a Fagan spokesman said the secretary of state will give Hall benchmarks to meet each day and ask her to provide daily updates on the number of ballots duplicated.

Talking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Fagan stressed that she still has full faith that Clackamas County’s slow-moving election results will be accurate, though she said found the delays “incredibly frustrating and quite frankly just outrageous.”

Read Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall’s memo

She demanded a written plan so voters will know how many ballots to expect each day and so she and Clackamas County leaders can know if Hall’s office needs more help. When ballot problems were detected prior to the election, Hall repeatedly insisted that she would meet deadlines without any additional staff, only to surprise Fagan, voters and candidates by failing to report any results on election night. 

As of Tuesday night, Clackamas County had tallied just 60,230 ballots, slightly more than half of the ballots received. The county has only duplicated 7,543 ballots, according to Hall’s memo. 

“That plan will show us where they expect to be every single day, and we can all watch and hold them accountable if they hit those benchmarks every single day,” Fagan said. “Those benchmarks are going to lead them to have these election results certified on or before the statutory deadline.”

Between 40 and 160 people are scheduled to work five-hour shifts each day through June 2, including on Memorial Day. It takes teams of two about three minutes to duplicate a ballot, according to Hall’s memo.

If Hall doesn’t meet the June 13 deadline, Fagan said she anticipates pursuing a court order to force the county to continue counting. The state constitution requires that every vote be counted and state law sets deadlines. 

Senior staff from the secretary of state’s office have been observing every day, and about a dozen employees helped with ballot processing over the weekend. More than 150 county employees from outside the elections office worked on processing election results, according to the county.

Hall’s mishandling has prompted calls for her resignation from a conservative talk show host, the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper and various county residents. Fagan, who is also a Clackamas County  resident, declined to weigh in on whether Hall should remain county clerk. 

“My north star as secretary of state for the whole state is to land this plane, and right now the only person legally authorized to land this plane under Oregon law is the clerk,” Fagan said. “And so as long as she’s the clerk, I will continue to work directly with her to make sure that we get these election results to my office by the deadline of June 13.”

However, she said it’s possible that legislators could try to change how Clackamas County runs elections. Clackamas County is the third-largest county in the state and the largest 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 Commission could force her to accept help. 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 late last week. 

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

A barcode printing error that made about two-thirds of the county’s ballots unreadable by machines has affected more Democratic ballots than Republican ballots, leaving voters in suspense over the outcome of a high-profile congressional race between Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

McLeod-Skinner still leads Schrader, and ballots counted so far in Clackamas County haven’t shown the level of support he’d need to overtake her. But with tens of thousands of ballots left to count, Schrader has not conceded and McLeod-Skinner has not declared victory. 

Separately, the secretary of state’s office is investigating an election complaint filed by the McLeod-Skinner campaign alleging that Schrader’s campaign observer was able to enter an observation room an hour before the building opened and McLeod-Skinner’s observer was allowed in. 

Hall said during a press conference last week that she had no idea how the Schrader observer made it in. Surveillance footage released Tuesday by Clackamas County shows an election worker talking briefly with Schrader’s observer, then speaking with Hall in a lobby before opening the outside door and letting the man into an observation room. Fagan said she saw the footage minutes before speaking with reporters and was frustrated and disappointed. 

“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,” she said. “So I’m incredibly frustrated, and incredibly disappointed, and I find it outrageous that the facts came out and it looks to be contradictory of what she said to the public during the press availability just late last week.”

This article and its headline were updated at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, after Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall submitted her plan to count ballots. 

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.