Oregon polling fiasco spotlights ‘invisible’ election leaders

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OREGON CITY, Ore. — Voters in an Oregon county where a ballot printing error delayed primary results for nearly two weeks have elected the same county clerk five times in the past 20 years despite missteps that impacted two previous elections and cost taxpayers at least $100,000.

Opponents have repeatedly attempted to unseat Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall, who was first elected in 2002, following election errors in 2004, 2010 and 2011 and an investigation by Report on vote tampering in 2012.

Hall earns $112,600 a year in the nonpartisan position of overseeing elections, recording real estate transactions, keeping public records and issuing marriage licenses. She is running for a sixth four-year term in November in the suburban county south of Portland and is being challenged by a former librarian who works in the election department of Oregon’s largest county.

The latest scandal in Oregon comes against the backdrop of a polarized political landscape in which vote counting has come under increasing scrutiny. Races for local election clerks — who until recently worked in obscurity and relative anonymity — are garnering attention, especially from right-wing voters who deny that President Joe Biden won the presidential election. 2020.

Local election leaders are the first line of defense for election integrity, but most voters don’t know who their county clerk is, or even what they do, and are likely to skip the nonpartisan race. on polling day, or simply to choose the incumbent. . Some county clerks are appointed, but in many counties in Oregon and elsewhere they are beholden to the whims of voters who may not be paying attention, said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at the Oregon State University.

There is a “myopia and invisibility about this kind of office in American public life,” he said.

The situation in Oregon’s third-largest county underscores the importance of such contests.

In the current election, tens of thousands of ballots sent out with fuzzy barcodes were rejected by a vote counting machine. The issue affected Democratic and nonpartisan polls more than Republican polls, state officials said. The fiasco forced the county to relocate nearly 200 county employees to vote tabulation duties; county officials do not yet know the full cost of the cleanup job.

For days, workers transferred each voter’s intent from spoiled ballots to new ones, by hand using purple markers, in a painstaking process that may not be completed for more than two weeks. More than 81,000 of more than 116,000 ballots had been counted by early Friday, and nearly 35,000 spoiled ballots remained to be duplicated, according to county tallies.

The outcome of Oregon’s 5th congressional district Democratic primary – a close race between a centrist seven-term incumbent and a progressive challenger – was delayed more than a week by the blunder. The AP called the race for challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner on Friday.

The results of several other contests remained undecided as the county struggled to meet daily vote count benchmarks set out in a corrective plan submitted to the state.

“It concerns all of us. It’s voter integrity,” said Janet Bailey, a Republican voter who protested outside the Clackamas County election offices Thursday along with a dozen others. “We in Oregon a week ago had our primary, and we still don’t know the results.”

Hall was aware of the problem with the May 3 ballots, but did not take meaningful action until after the May 17 election, when it became clear that the vote count had been significantly delayed. The Oregon secretary of state said Hall had turned down offers of state aid; at least one Democratic state legislator has demanded a legislative inquiry into the ballot fiasco.

Some voters took advantage of the county’s troubles to demand an end to Oregon’s email voting system and the use of electronic machines to count votes.

“Our votes need to count,” said Cindy Hise, a Clackamas County voter who wants the entire primary redone. “It’s been going on for days. We’ve lost hope that this was a real vote.

Hall declined a phone or in-person interview with The Associated Press for the story, but said in response to emailed questions Thursday that she would cooperate with any investigation. She said she had no comment on calls from some for her resignation.

She also addressed many of the 2020 contributions she’s made to national Republican causes, saying in a brief email that she “maintains neutrality.” Donations to the Republican National Senate Committee and WINRED, a Republican Party fundraising platform, were all $100 or less.

“I have the right, as a private citizen, to exercise freedom of expression and association. I give small contributions to a large number of organizations,” she wrote. “I do not accept endorsements of any kind.”

Controversy is not new to Hall, who has overseen county elections since taking office in 2003.

— In 2004, the county excluded three annexation questions on ballots mailed to 300 voters and did not alert the public for 10 days.

– In 2010, a county commission race was listed on the primary ballot when it shouldn’t have been. The ballots were reprinted at a cost of over $100,000. Hall later filed a complaint with state election officials, saying the episode, including “leaks” to the press and public criticism of him by county officials, cost him primary votes. and forced her to a runoff in November.

— In 2012, an election worker was caught tampering with two ballots and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

– In 2018, Hall placed her name and county clerk title on ballot return envelopes and voter information pamphlets while seeking re-election to the office, a move critics have called blatant self-promotion in a tight race.

Hall said in her email that all of the election incidents “occurred under my watch” and that she or people in her office “took appropriate action as required.”

Pamela White, who challenged Hall in 2018 and lost by less than 6,000 votes, said even with such missteps it seemed impossible to defeat Hall. In that election, more than 52,000 voters skipped the race for county clerk entirely despite continued criticism of Hall’s election watchdog and the endorsement of White by Hall’s recently retired chief electoral officer.

White spent $100,000 on the race, including $25,000 of her own money, and campaigned for two years, she said.

“I worked really hard,” she said. “I knew what I was doing, but this issue of downvoting is a problem even in your own party. It simply removes all the air from the room.

Steve Kindred, the former chief electoral officer who backed White, said her relationship with Hall soured after a 2014 incident in which she asked him to work on her re-election campaign during office hours without tell him what it was for. She was later fined $100 by state election officials for the breach. Kindred retired early.

Kindred said seeing the polling fiasco now after enduring the ballot tampering investigation in 2012 was like a “punched in the stomach”.

“We’ve had a few hellish elections, not as bad as this one,” he said. “It’s almost like she’s frozen, like a deer in the headlights.”

For now, the county is focused on counting votes by June 13, the state election certification deadline.

Cline reported from Portland. Associated Press writer Andrew Selsky in Salem and AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.

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