Pressure mounts over Oregon primary ballot fiasco

May 20, 2022, 11:21 AM | Updated: May 21, 2022, 4:59 am
An election worker at the Clackamas County Elections office shows barcodes on ballots that is bad, ...

An election worker at the Clackamas County Elections office shows barcodes on ballots that is bad, top, and good on Thursday, May 19, 2022, Oregon City, Ore. Ballots with blurry barcodes that can't be read by vote-counting machines will delay election results by weeks in a key U.S. House race in Oregon's primary. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

(AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

OREGON CITY, Ore. (AP) — A Democratic state lawmaker in Oregon is calling for an investigation into a ballot-printing fiasco that will delay results from Tuesday’s primary by weeks, with a key U.S. House race hanging in the balance in a state that prides itself on voter access and election transparency.

Tens of thousands of ballots in the state’s third-largest county were printed with blurred barcodes, making them unreadable by vote-counting machines — a mistake that wasn’t caught until ballots were already being returned in the vote-by-mail state. Elections workers must now hand-transfer the votes from those ballots to new ones that can be read in a painstaking process that also raises the possibility of duplication errors.

As the scope of the crisis became apparent, local, state and federal lawmakers Friday all escalated their criticism of Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall, who defended her actions at a news conference Friday and said she had learned from the mistakes.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, who represents voters in the county, called the situation “unreasonable, and untenable” and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents some Clackamas voters in Congress, called Hall’s slow reaction “unconscionable.” Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan demanded a written plan from Hall detailing how she would get the election results tabulated by June 13, the state deadline to certify results.

“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.

The debacle has angered many in Oregon, where all ballots have been cast only by mail for 23 years and lawmakers have consistently pushed to expand voter access through automatic voter registration and expanded deadlines. It’s also thrown into question a key U.S. House race in a district that includes a large portion of Clackamas County, which stretches nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers), 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-term Rep. Kurt Schrader, a moderate, was trailing in the vote behind progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The outcome could have an outsized impact in November, with the possibility that voters could flip the seat for the GOP.

Hall at a news conference Friday said she made mistakes. When pressed on why she didn’t didn’t do more to address the problem when it was discovered in early May, Hall said, “I just didn’t.”

“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,” she said. “This was something we’ve never seen before and so some of it, I guess it’s just the reaction and the learning.”

State Republicans were also paying close attention to the ballot mess.

Republican state Sen. Bill Kennemer, whose district includes much of Clackamas County, called the ballot issues “alarming and concerning” and said he hoped the crisis would prompt fixes to the system.

“I would really love to see us after we get through this crisis, take some deep breaths and get some experts in there that we have confidence with, and then start looking where our chinks in our armor are and what do we need to fix it,” he told The Associated Press on Friday.

Hall used Moonlight BPO in Bend — a printer not used for ballots by any other county — and said she has used them for 10 years without any problems.

Moonlight, which was founded as a small family business in 1985, had been a certified printer for the election system the county uses, the Hart InterCivic tabulation system, but Hall said the company stopped certifying any printers for ballot-printing in 2020. Clackamas County continued to use Moonlight, but Hall said “I don’t intend to use them ever again.”

Aaron Berg, a representative of Moonlight, said Moonlight has not been able to figure what happened to the ballots.

“We follow the exact same protocol and process every year and nothing changed this year,” he told AP. “We’ve got to figure out what the heck is going on. And we’re not saying it’s anyone’s fault.”

Berg said a team from Moonlight travelled to Clackamas County in early May and met with Hall and another of her staff to review the process. “That’s the last we’ve heard of it until it hit the news, much to our surprise,” Berg said.

As many as 60,000 ballots are unreadable by vote-counting machines because of blurry barcodes and up to 200 county employees were being redeployed starting Thursday from their normal duties to hand-transfer the voter’s intent to a fresh ballot that could be scanned. By Friday just 27,342 ballots of more than 90,000 that were returned had been tallied.

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

Hall and her staff did not “proof” the printed ballots before they were mailed out to check for any issues, as is considered best practice, but had talked about doing so, she said. That still wouldn’t have caught the problem if the toner ran low toward the end of a printing batch, affecting the barcodes, as may have happened in this case, she said.

As Election Day approached and ballots stacked up, Hall said she allowed elections workers to take the weekend off because just three people signed up to work Saturday or Sunday. Most election workers are “between the ages of 70 and 85” and they need rest, she said.

Fagan said her office offered Hall help twice after the problem came to light, but Hall said her county had enough resources.

State elections officials say they have little authority over the nonpartisan local county elections officials, who operate independently and are beholden to voters. Hall is up for reelection in November after holding the job since 2003.

It’s not the first time Hall has come under fire in her elections role. In 2012, a temporary election worker was sentenced to 90 days in jail after admitting she tampered with two ballots. In 2014, Hall was criticized for using the phrase “Democrat Party” — a pejorative used by Republicans to demean Democrats — on a primary ballot instead of Democratic Party.

A county audit conducted last year identified several problems with elections procedures but Hall only implemented two of the four fixes suggested in the audit, Tootie Smith, the county chairwoman, said.

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Cline reported from Portland.

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Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus and Sara Cline at http://www.twitter.com/SaraLCline

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Pressure mounts over Oregon primary ballot fiasco