OREGON CITY, Ore. (AP) – A lawmaker in the Democratic state of Oregon is calling for an investigation into a failure to print ballot papers that will delay the results of Tuesday’s primary election by weeks with a major U.S. house race hanging in the balance in a proud state of 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 ballot machines – a mistake that was not caught until the ballots were already returned to the state by postal ballot. Electoral staff must now manually transfer the votes from these ballot papers to new ones that can be read in a careful process that also raises the possibility of duplication errors.
As the scale of the crisis became clear, local, state and federal lawmakers on Friday escalated their criticism of Clackama County’s election secretary Sherry Hall, who defended her actions at a news conference Friday, saying she had learned from the mistakes.
State Representative Janelle Bynum, who represents voters in the county, called the situation “unreasonable and unsustainable,” and U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, who represents some Clackamas voters in Congress, called Hall’s slow response “unscrupulous.” Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan demanded a written plan from Hall outlining how she would get the election results set before June 13, the state deadline for certifying results.
“Despite having had time to prepare for an election day disaster, Mrs 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 ballot papers have only been cast by mail for 23 years, and lawmakers have consistently pushed to expand voter turnout through automatic voter registration and extended deadlines. It also questions an important U.S. House race in a district that encompasses much of Clackamas County, stretching 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-year-old representative Kurt Schrader, a moderate, was behind in the vote for progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The result could have an overall impact in November, with the possibility for voters to turn their seats to the GOP.
Hall said at a news conference Friday that she made a mistake. When asked why she did not do more to solve the problem when it was discovered in early May, Hall said, “I just did not.”
“I did not respond to this with the haste I should have, and I am aware of that, but I still know we want the count done on time,” she said. “This was something we’ve never seen before, and so some of it I think it’s just the reaction and the learning.”
State Republicans were also very attentive to the ballot.
Republican State Sen. Bill Kennemer, whose district covers large parts of Clackamas County, called the ballot questions “alarming and worrying” and said he hoped the crisis would give rise to corrections 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 trust, and then start seeing where our cracks in our armor are and what we need to fix it. “he told the Associated Press on Friday.
Hall used the Moonlight BPO in Bend – a printer not used for voting by any other county – and said she has been using them for 10 years with no problems.
Moonlight, founded as a small family business in 1985, had been a certified printer for the election system the county uses, the Hart InterCivic table system, but Hall said the company stopped certifying any printer for voice printing by 2020. Clackamas County continued with using Moonlight, but Hall said “I’m not going to use them ever again.”
Aaron Berg, a representative of Moonlight, said Moonlight has not been able to find out what happened to the ballots.
“We follow exactly the same protocol and process every year, and nothing changed this year,” he told the AP. “We have to figure out what the heck’s going on. And we’re not saying it’s anyone’s fault.”
Berg said a team from Moonlight traveled to Clackamas County in early May and met with Hall and another of her staff to review the process. “That’s the last thing we heard about it until it came in the news, to our great surprise,” Berg said.
As many as 60,000 ballot papers are unreadable by ballot machines due to blurred barcodes, and up to 200 county officials were redistributed as of Thursday from their normal duties to transfer voter intent to a new ballot paper that could be scanned. On Friday, just 27,342 ballots of more than 90,000 returned had been counted.
Hall said the problem emerged on May 3, when workers put the first ballots back through the ballot machine. About 70 or 80 ballots from each party of 125 were spit out as unreadable because their barcodes were weaker and slightly blurred. It was too late to print and send new ballots, she said.
Hall and her staff did not “proof” the printed ballot papers until they were sent out to check for any issues as it is considered best practice, but had talked about doing so, she said. It still would not have caught the problem if the toner ran out towards the end of a print batch, affecting the barcodes, as may have happened in this case, she said.
As election day approached and ballots piled up, Hall said she allowed election workers to take the weekend off because only three people signed up to work Saturday or Sunday. Most election staff are “between 70 and 85 years old” and they need rest, she said.
Fagan said her office offered Hall help twice after the problem emerged, but Hall said her county had enough resources.
State election officials say they have little authority over the non-partisan local county election officials, who operate independently and are dependent on voters. Hall is up for re-election in November after having held the job since 2003.
This is not the first time Hall has come under fire in his election role. In 2012, a temporary election official was sentenced to 90 days in prison after admitting she had tampered with two ballot papers. In 2014, Hall was criticized for using the term “Democratic Party” – a derogatory word used by Republicans to denigrate Democrats – on a primary ballot paper instead of Democratic Party.
A county audit conducted last year identified several issues with election procedures, but Hall implemented only two of the four corrections proposed in the audit, said Tootie Smith, the county president.
Cline reported from Portland.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus and Sara Cline at http://www.twitter.com/SaraLCline