State Rep. Janelle Bynum is calling for a legislative inquiry into troubles at the Clackamas County elections office, as problems with misprinted ballots there could push results from Tuesday’s primary into June.
Bynum, D-Clackamas, said Thursday she would ask a House committee to conduct a hearing or hearings into the matter after the election has been certified on June 13. An inquiry would look into how the delays at Clackamas County arose, whether they were addressed properly and how similar problems could be avoided in the future, Bynum said.
“When voters vote they deserve efficient, transparent election processes to determine who wins those elections,” Bynum said. “The notion that vote counting may continue until the middle of June is unreasonable and untenable.”
Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall, an independently elected county leader, announced earlier this month that a sizable chunk of the ballots sent out to voters contained misprinted barcodes, which could not be read by the machines used to tally votes. Because of that, election workers must carry out a time-intensive process of hand-copying the votes from defective ballots onto new, error-free ones. Members of different parties participate in the process for each ballot, ensuring every one is recorded accurately.
While Hall and her staff knew about the ballot problem for weeks before the primary deadline, elected officials at all levels of government became alarmed on Election Night, when the state’s third-most populous county was unable to report the vast majority of votes cast there.
Hall told county commissioners this week that tens of thousands of ballots had to be counted, and that she could commit to completing the process by the June 13 vote certification deadline.
The slowdown has impacted all races touching Clackamas County but has created an especially dramatic scenario in the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 5th congressional district. In that race, seven-term incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader is currently losing to challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
The situation has led to scathing comments from Clackamas County commissioners, who have said Hall did not initially accept help when offered, and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. It’s even got a congressman plotting Hall’s political demise. In an email Thursday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer urged supporters to donate to Catherine McMullen, Hall’s opponent in the November election.
“The Clackamas County elections division is run by Republican Sherry Hall,” Blumenauer wrote. “She has a long track record of mistakes, misdeeds, and failed oversight of elections in Clackamas County.”
State officials have reached out to Yamhill and Washington counties about bringing in election workers who are trained to use the same system as Clackamas County. The county’s 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 Wednesday. “... We’ll make sure we have enough to get the job done.”
Bynum said Thursday she has questions about county workers being forced to count ballots and wanted to learn more about how they are trained, and whether they are required to divulge their party affiliation. She is also interested in how much the error will cost and what other counties can do to avoid similar problems in the future.
One Clackamas county commissioner, Sonya Fischer, told OPB on Thursday that county taxpayers should not have to pay for the impact of the printing error.
“I am absolutely looking into any action the Board of Commissioners can take to demand accountability for the printer and anyone else who is responsible for this delay,” Fischer said.
Bynum has secured at least some crucial support for an inquiry. State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, the Portland Democrat who controls the House Rules Committee, said Thursday she’s willing to look into the matter. The committee traditionally has authority over election matters within the House.
“We might as well,” Smith Warner said. “We have a really strong system here and when things like this happen I think it’s important that we take a look.”
Legislators are next scheduled to meet in committee in early June, prior to the deadline for certifying votes. Smith Warner said that meant that hearings would likely occur in September, the next time committees are slated to convene.
“I acknowledge that the secretary of state has been doing a lot of this,” Smith Warner said. “I suspect it will be something we do with her or through her.”
April Ehrlich contributed to this story.