Oregon Election Fiasco Delays Results, Postal Voting Pioneer

OREGON CITY, Oregon — Thousands of ballots with blurry barcodes that cannot be read by ballot machines will delay the results of a key U.S. home race in the Oregon primary by weeks, a shocking development that has blacked out a mail-in ballot pioneer state with a national reputation as a leader in voter access and equal opportunities.

The fiasco affects up to 60,000 ballots, or two-thirds of the roughly 90,000 returned so far in Oregon’s third-largest county. Hundreds of ballots were still coming in under a new law that allows them to be counted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day, and 200 Clackamas County employees received a crash course in vote counting on Thursday after being redeployed to deal with the crisis had been.

Poll workers must pull the erroneous ballots from stacks of 125, transfer the voter’s intent to a new ballot, and then double-check their entries — a laborious process that could delay the election until June 13, when Oregon confirms its vote. The workers work in pairs, one Democrat and one Republican, in two shifts of 11 hours a day.

Voters from both political parties crowded into a narrow room with windows that allowed views of workers opening ballots, transmitting votes, checking marked ballots, and using the vote counting machines. They expressed shock at the mistake and anger at the slow response of embattled poll worker Sherry Hall, who has held the elected office for nearly 20 years. As of Wednesday evening, workers had numbered 15,649.

“It blows my mind,” said Ron Smith, a Clackamas County voter. “It’s a bit questionable. Because of that, I’m here. … With everything that’s going on, we don’t need any additional suspicion. It seems like something like this was properly tested early in this whole process.”

Observers speak with Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall, right, while poll workers check ballots Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Oregon City, Ore.
Observers speak with Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall, right, while poll workers check ballots Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Oregon City, Ore.

The debacle has stunned Oregon, where all ballots have been mailed only for 23 years and lawmakers have consistently pushed to expand voter access through automated voter registration, extended deadlines and other measures. It’s also challenging a key U.S. home race in a redrawn borough that encompasses much of Clackamas County, spanning nearly 2,000 square miles from Portland’s liberal southern suburbs to rural conservative communities on the flanks of Mount Hood .

In the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 5th congressional district, seven-year Rep. Kurt Schrader, a moderate, trailed progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner in the vote. The result could have outsized implications in November, with the possibility that voters could flip the seat for the GOP.

Hall said the problem came to light on May 3 when workers put the first returned ballots through the vote counting machine. About 70 or 80 ballots from each batch of 125 were spat out as unreadable because their barcodes were fainter and slightly blurred. It’s too late to print and mail new ballots, she said.

As Election Day approached and ballots piled up, Hall said she allowed poll workers to take the weekend off because only three people had signed up for Saturday or Sunday work. “We have mostly people between the ages of 70 and 85,” and they need rest, she said.

A poll worker examines a ballot at the Clackamas County Elections Office.
A poll worker examines a ballot at the Clackamas County Elections Office.

The Secretary of State said Hall declined help and said Clackamas County could handle the situation. Hall told The Associated Press that several county workers were tasked with the election issue on May 11, a week after it surfaced.

Kathy Selvaggio, who lives in the more urban and affluent suburbs of the county, peered through windows Thursday to watch the vote count.

“Mail-in voting works, it works well here, but it erodes my confidence in (Hall),” said Selvaggio, who was there as a McLeod-Skinner campaign volunteer.

Hall said her department discussed running test ballots out of the printer before they were mailed, but that her office had used the printer in question for 10 years with no problems.

“There’s a lot of other work to be done,” Hall, who is up for re-election in November, told the AP. “I hate the fact that this has happened to our ballots. It’s terrible. We need to build trust with voters and this is not a trustworthy article but we are doing what we can.”

It’s not the first time Hall has come under fire in her campaign role. In 2012, a temporary campaign worker was sentenced to 90 days in prison after admitting to tampering with two ballots. In 2014, Hall was criticized for using the term “Democrat Party” — a derogatory term used by Republicans to demean Democrats — in place of Democratic Party on a ballot.

Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall speaks in office Thursday, May 19, 2022, Oregon City, Ore.
Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall speaks in office Thursday, May 19, 2022, Oregon City, Ore.

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said she was “deeply concerned” by the recent situation, and her office issued a statement Tuesday calling the delay “unacceptable.” But state election officials said Thursday they had little authority over local election officials.

“The independence of county officials is an important part of the electoral system and our focus right now is to support them,” said agency spokesman Ben Morris.

State law does not require county election officials to run ballots through their machines before mailing them.

Christopher Stout, associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were legislation to change that.

“I think all these issues are obviously bad in the short term,” he said. “But over the long term, they will lead to improvements because people will see that these things are problems and they will find ways to make it better.”

Former Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan watched closely Tuesday night as the results rolled in from across the state. She was finally declared the winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary the next night.

“I understood that on election night, Clackamas County knew this was a challenge,” Drazan said. “The fact that we weren’t quite there on election night was just a fact that we needed to accept and learn more about how the county would respond to that.”

She said voters concerned about the integrity of the process should come and see it in person.

“It should have been addressed earlier with this level of urgency, but it’s quite rare for a pressure issue like this to arise,” Drazan said. Oregon Election Fiasco Delays Results, Postal Voting Pioneer


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