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Amid major delays, Clackamas County leaders slam county clerk for not accepting help with blurred ballots

Workers check ballots at elections offices in Clackamas County, Oregon, the state's third most populous county south of Portland, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Many ballots in the county were printed with blurry barcodes, preventing them from being read by voting tabulation machines.
Gillian Flaccus
Workers check ballots at elections offices in Clackamas County, Oregon, the state's third most populous county south of Portland, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Many ballots in the county were printed with blurry barcodes, preventing them from being read by voting tabulation machines.

Smudged barcodes on voter ballots have thrown the Clackamas County primary elections – and results of a number of big races in the county and beyond – into turmoil that will likely take weeks to solve.

On Wednesday, county leaders blamed the independently elected county clerk, Sherry Hall, for not accepting offers of help sooner.

“The fact that they were behind in issuing results is no surprise,” said Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith. “They have known about the blurred bar codes for weeks. They must take the steps necessary to correct this problem they knew about weeks ago.”

More than half of all county ballots may be affected by a misprint that leaves them unreadable by county voting machines, according to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s office. On Tuesday night, Fagan said she was disappointed with a lack of urgency she perceived from Clackamas County election officials.

On Wednesday, other county leaders offered Hall help processing misprinted ballots, and seemed confused about why the problem had grown so large when they’d made similar offers of more resources well before the election deadline Tuesday.

Commissioner Sonya Fischer said she’d asked Hall late last week to confirm misprinted ballots would be processed over the weekend but got no response. Hall told commissioners her team did not work over the weekend because not enough of them were willing to put in the extra time. Fischer suggested Hall had been reluctant to take help from other county leaders before election day.

“Our voters deserve to know. They deserve as quick results as possible,” Fischer said. “So I’d like assurance that our county elections office is now accepting the help and resources the county is offering.”

“As an independently elected official, she needs to say yes,” said Smith.

Hall told commissioners she was ready to accept help. “We are talking about working this weekend, and I plan to do that, but we need enough staff to do that,” she said. “I’m not sure if I can force them to work or if they have to be willing.”

Later, at a news conference, Smith was even blunter with reporters: “My county administrator offered additional staff immediately and any resources,” she said. “Sherry Hall did not take us up on that offer immediately. ... I believe it was a mistake.”

State officials have reached out to Yamhill and Washington counties about bringing in elections workers who are trained to use the same system as Clackamas County. County administrator Gary Schmidt said he’s reassigning up to 200 Clackamas County staff from other departments to work on ballot counting.

“That’s starting tomorrow, including the weekends, for as long as it takes,” he said. “... We’ll make sure we have enough to get the job done.”

The county will need to employ about 80 people a day to recount the misprinted ballots. Each employee will work in shifts, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day, until the process is complete.

Hall said the bulk of ballots impacted by the misprint were from Democratic voters. But it’s hard to know precisely how many ballots have smudged barcodes because there are many variations of ballots. In all, Clackamas County printed 307,000 ballots with 440 different lists of races based on where voters live and their party affiliation. Starting this year, Oregon accepts ballots postmarked on election day as long as they arrive within seven days of the election.

The county has until certification day, June 13, to fully complete the recount and verification process.

The recount involves two people from differing political parties pairing up and transferring each smudged ballot’s votes onto a new ballot that can be read by a vote-counting machine.

One person reads the ballot’s votes aloud, and the other transfers the votes into a new ballot. Then they switch roles. Once they are content that the votes have been properly transferred to a new ballot, they feed it through a ballot machine. The misprinted ballot is then indexed and audited later.

This process is implemented every election cycle for ballots that are accidently smudged, such as with coffee or mustard.

But the scale of this problem is unprecedented in Oregon. And the delay in Clackamas County has impacted a number of races; it’s not yet clear who has won the Republican primary for governoror the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 5th U.S. House district, for example.

At their special meeting Wednesday, several commissioners stressed to viewers that Hall is an independently elected clerk, though her employees are county employees.

Hall, who is up for reelection in November, is a controversial figure in her own right. Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Oregon in 2014, she refused to conduct marriage ceremonies of any kind. That same year, she had to pay the state a $100 fine for asking one of her employees to help with her reelection campaign. In past reelection years, opponents have criticized her for putting her name on the envelopes of vote-by-mail ballots sent to county voters, an unusual but not illegal practice.

This story may be updated.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.