politics

Clackamas County clerk blames multiple election mistakes on outside businesses

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
Aug. 11, 2022 12 p.m. Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 8:19 p.m.

About three months after an election snafu misprinted more than half of Clackamas County primary ballots, diverted hundreds of county employees from their normal jobs, and cost taxpayers $600,000, Clerk Sherry Hall addressed the county Board of Commissioners on Wednesday with her summary of what went wrong.

“It’s humans,” Hall said. “Things happen.”

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Hall told the board that “everything with this election was done correctly and on time” — even though, in May, Hall said her office didn’t act urgently enough when it became clear that tabulator machines weren’t processing many returned ballots. Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan also criticized Hall for an apparent lack of urgency.

Then this month, Hall’s office again came under fire after thousands of voters in Oregon City, who were set to vote on their next mayor, didn’t receive voters pamphlets along with their ballots. After officials noticed the problem, they mailed letters notifying voters of the mistake to 3,800 households. The number of individual voters who were impacted by the mistake was likely greater than that.

In both instances, Hall blamed the third-party businesses handling the county’s ballot printing and mailing.

“Things happen,” Hall said. “We try to correct it, but we don’t control everybody’s work ethic or the way they do their job.”

Two women sit at a desk at a televised public meeting.

In this screenshot taken from the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, County Clerk Sherry Hall, left, and Elections Manager Rebekah Stern Doll speak to commissioners about what happened when more than half of primary election ballots were misprinted and rendered unreadable.

Screenshot via Clackamas County / OPB

Hall said Moonlight BPO, the Bend-based printer that handled the county’s primary election, produced ballots with blurry barcodes. Elections offices are required to run tests on printed ballots well ahead of Election Day to address any issues that might arise in the printing process. Earlier this year, Hall said her staff tested ballots on May 3, but when they did, they only tested ballots they printed in-house, not the ones that came from the printer.

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In Wednesday’s meeting, Hall told commissioners that she conferred with Multnomah and Washington counties’ election officials.

“And they don’t proof ballots, either, ahead of time,” Hall said.

Elections officials with those counties disagree. They’re required by state law to test ballots no later than seven days before an election. In Multnomah County, officials order between 15,000 and 25,000 extra ballots from its printer for testing on tabulator machines. They run multiple tests, two before the election and a third right before they certify results. They run their first test about three weeks before Election Day. Similarly, Washington County tested its ballots in early May.

With Oregon City’s mayoral election, Hall said the voters’ pamphlets were “not in the right place at the mail house to be inserted into the envelope.” She said she doesn’t know why that happened.

While Hall repeatedly blamed human error by outside businesses for the recent election mistakes, Commissioner Sonya Fischer pushed back.

“It’s usually not the people, but the process, whenever there’s a glitch or challenge,” Fischer said.

She asked Hall for more specifics on how she planned to ensure similar mistakes don’t happen in the November general election.

“What is the process to make sure that all the steps are followed? And if they aren’t followed, then where’s the accountability — if we’re working with a contractor or if it’s a mail house or whatever it is,” Fischer said. “Because with the heightened sense of distrust in election integrity, these kinds of mistakes are just not acceptable to the public.”

By the end of Wednesday’s meeting, most of the Clackamas County commissioners said they wanted to pursue a third-party analysis or report of what went wrong in May. Hall said she was open to cooperating with the investigation. Chair Tootie Smith also asked Hall to produce an after-action report with a timeline of events and lessons learned.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how many voters were affected by a printing error. Clackamas County election officials mailed letters to 3,800 households in Oregon City in August after they realized ballots for the mayoral race didn’t include voters’ pamphlets; the number of voters impacted by this error was likely greater than that.

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Clackamas County ballot mishap reveals the crucial, controversial, often invisible role of Oregon’s county clerks

False claims of election fraud in the 2020 election put sparked voter interest in secretaries of state overseeing various state elections, but the real administrative work of democracy is usually done at the county level. In Oregon, the clerks or elections directors in those counties often toil away unnoticed, but the ongoing debacle in Clackamas County with blurred ballot barcodes has shone a spotlight on them.