Cure for Clackamas County ballot box blunders: Vote out the county clerk


It was a fairly low-profile race, until it wasn’t.

The Clackamas County Clerk’s office drew intense scrutiny during and after the May primary election, because it failed to promptly respond to ballot printing errors and prevent delays in certifying election results. The blunder delayed results in the congressional race between Jamie McLeod-Skinner and incumbent Kurt Schrader, and in numerous state and county races.

Media outlets and state officials, including Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, have largely blamed current Clerk Sherry Hall. The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune have called for her resignation.

Hall, who has held the office for 20 years, is up for election in November, and her sole opponent is an active member of AFSCME Local 88 who has numerous union endorsements.

Catherine McMullen is a certified elections administrator for Multnomah County, a position she moved into after 10 years at the Multnomah County Library. She launched a campaign for Clackamas County Clerk last June.

McMullen, a West Linn resident, is not weighing in on whether Hall should resign. But she said critics are right to blame the clerk.

“She is ultimately responsible for conducting the elections for the people of Clackamas County,” McMullen told the Labor Press. 

The election problems came to light May 3, when Hall’s office learned a portion of ballots mailed to Clackamas County voters were mistakenly printed with blurry barcodes. That means ballot counting machines couldn’t read them. When the clerk’s office began preparing ballots for tally by arranging them in batches of 125 and putting them through the counting machine, between 70 and 80 were rejected in each batch, Hall told county commissioners during a May 12 meeting.

It was too late to reprint or resend ballots for the May 17 primary election, Hall said, so the office decided to duplicate each filled out ballot. That means every rejected ballot would be set aside and its votes would be manually copied onto a properly printed ballot.

McMullen, an experienced elections administrator, says that’s a labor-intensive process usually reserved for much smaller cases, like when someone spills coffee on their ballot or a pet chews it up.

Each damaged ballot is reviewed by two election workers — one who reads off the choices on the damaged ballot and the other who marks those choices on the new ballot. Then, both workers check the new ballot to make sure it’s accurate. The workers also copy an ID number from the original ballot onto the new one and keep the ballots together (in case there’s a recount that requires examination of the original damaged ballot).

“That’s for every ballot, for every contest,” McMullen said.

When she first heard about the problem, McMullen was concerned about the amount of work before the county clerk’s office. With the numbers Hall floated to county commissioners, as many as 65% of ballots in the county were estimated to be defective. (In the end, the county reported there were nearly 46,000 defective ballots out of 116,000 total ballots voters submitted.)

McMullen recalled one election she worked on where a machine that opened ballot envelopes was inadvertently slicing through ballots as well. In that case, 5% of ballots had to be duplicated.

“I remember doing duplication for hours, and how much work it was and just how much it was going to cost in extra staff time and resources,” she says.

She wasn’t alone in wondering about the county’s resources. As days turned into a week after the election without Clackamas County results, pressure mounted on Hall’s office. In a May 24 press conference, Fagan said her office had repeatedly offered additional staff to help the county speed up the ballot duplication process. Those offers were declined.

“It’s basic project management and planning to deal with that crisis upfront,” McMullen says.

After repeated prodding from Fagan’s office and other officials, Hall’s office published an election response plan on May 24. It indicates Clackamas County is providing county workers to help with the vote count. As of May 30, the clerk’s office had tallied about 111,000 of the 116,000 ballots. It has until June 13 to certify the election under state law.

McMullen says the public workers are the heroes of the county’s ballot counting efforts.

“There are hundreds of union members, county employees, who are stepping away from their current important work to respond to this emergency,” she said.

McMullen is endorsed by he Northwest Oregon Labor Council, Oregon AFSCME, AFSCME Local 350 (representing Clackamas County employees), AFT-Oregon, IBEW Local 48, PCCFFAP Local 2277 and UFCW Local 555.



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