About a half dozen people spent part of their Sunday sitting in a hallway at the Clackamas County elections office, watching ballot workers through plate glass windows. On the other side of those windows, around 50 election workers — wearing colored lanyards to designate their political party — were sorting through stacks of paper ballots, preparing them to be duplicated onto fresh ballots the next day.
Thousands of Clackamas County ballots from the May 17 primary have to be reprocessed because misprinted barcodes left them unreadable by tabulating machines. The county administrator redirected dozens of staff from other departments to copy votes from the bad ballots onto new ones. Elections officials say they might not get votes finalized until June — weeks after election day.
For some voters, this incident has added to their underlying fears that ballot-counting machines aren’t trustworthy, rooted in the false theory that the 2020 general election was rigged against former President Donald Trump. There’s no evidence to corroborate that conspiracy theory.
Members of the public and press are allowed to observe election workers as they reprocess the Clackamas County ballots. From the observers’ hallway, Renel Murr — a volunteer organizer with the local Republican Party — explained that she came to the elections building to keep an eye on ballot workers.
“We are being observers on this part of the electoral process just to make sure that everything is going smoothly and make sure there’s no nefarious things going on,” Murr said. “So we’re just, you know, keeping them on their toes.”
Murr said that she doesn’t trust tabulator machines, that someone could hack into the computer system and move votes to a specific candidate. She’d rather have ballots hand-counted by people from different political parties.
“There would be safeguards and there would be checks and balances in this system,” Murr said. “They’re holding each other accountable, as opposed to having a machine where you don’t really know what’s going on with that.”
Experts say going back to counting ballots by hand would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and the degree of human error would make election results less accurate. Even so, hand-counting elections has become a fixation among some Republicans. Lawmakers in six states have proposed bills that would require ballots be counted by hand. And while those haven’t gained traction, the belief that voting machines are easily swayed by glitches and hacks appears to be growing, and it’s taken root in parts of Clackamas County.
“You don’t know. It’s going in a black box,” Jim Arn said from the observers’ hallway the day after primary ballots were due last week. “I’d like to have somebody look in those machines and see what’s in them.”
Arn wants to go even farther than Murr when it comes to voting by hand: He wants observers to be able to see votes as they’re being filed, which would likely sacrifice voter privacy laws.
“You can see them laying [the ballots] out on the table, but I want to have my eyes on them,” Arn said. “I want to see the vote. I want to see by eye what’s going on for myself to assure myself.”
Arn said he believes in the false allegations that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, and he said that this blunder with his local elections office adds to his fears.
“It’s just really convenient, right?” Arn said.
Questioning the integrity of Clackamas County elections
Meanwhile, the number and extent of mistakes made by Clackamas County elections officials — specifically County Clerk Sherry Hall — have added to their distrust in the system.
So far, Hall has said her office didn’t run a ballot test until May 3 — other nearby counties tend to run this test in mid-April, according to KGW. Also, her staff didn’t test the ballots that were printed by the third-party business that would be printing voters’ ballots. Instead, they printed a few sample ballots in-house and tested those, which turned out fine.
The county didn’t know that thousands of voters’ ballots were printed with bad barcodes until it started opening and tabulating returned ballots that week. County administrators and the Oregon Secretary of State’s office offered to lend additional staff to Hall’s office to help process the bad ballots. She didn’t accept it.
A few days after election day, Hall admitted that she didn’t act as urgently as she should have when it became clear that something was wrong.
Why didn’t she act sooner?
“I just didn’t,” Hall said. “I don’t have any other reason but just to say that I didn’t.”
The lack of clear answers has left some voters wondering if these mistakes were intentional, adding to their already festering distrust in the elections system.
On top of that, Hall has said that most of the ballots impacted appear to be from Democratic voters, while Hall’s own political background leans Republican. In 2014, Hall made it clear that she opposed Oregon’s legalization of same-sex marriage by refusing to carry out any marriages. Her Facebook page “likes” several far-right pages, including one that promotes Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen. In 2012, a temporary election worker hired by Hall’s office underwent a criminal investigation for filling in other people’s ballots with Republican votes.
Murr, among the Republican of the observers at the Clackamas County elections building, said it’s not fair to cast all the blame for the ballot misprints on Hall.
“This is something she’s never run across before,” Murr said. “I think she’s doing the best she can.”
Hall is running for re-election in November, and Murr said she’ll likely support her.