Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall's opponent in the November election is decrying another costly mistake after Hall announced on May 4 that an unknown number of ballots printed for the May 17 primary have blurred barcodes.
Hall expects that blurry barcodes will cause the affected ballots to be rejected by the county's automated ballot processing equipment. While there are often a few damaged ballots that they are not machine-readable in elections, preliminary batch runs conducted on May 3 for the current election led Hall to expect a "higher than usual" rate of rejection by the ballot-tallying machines, which will require additional time and effort by election workers.
Defective ballots will still be considered validly cast votes, and they will be tallied by two election workers of different political affiliations transferring the votes to a machine-readable duplicate ballot. These election workers must agree that the votes cast on the original ballot have been correctly transferred, and the original ballot is retained.
"We have plans and procedures in place to competently and correctly respond with this situation and many others," Hall said. "Fortunately, recent legislative and regulatory changes allowed my staff to identify this problem early in the election and have provided additional time to deal with it. It is simply a matter of staffing up and scaling up a process that has been vetted and is already in use."
Catherine McMullen, a certified elections official who is running against Hall on the November ballot, said the blurry barcodes are just the latest in the "litany of election mistakes" in Hall's office since her election 20 years ago. Past errors under Hall's watch have cost more than $100,000 in reprinting fees, and McMullen estimated that the current error would exceed that cost, assuming that two staff get paid minimum wage and at least 10% of the ballots were misprinted.
McMullen said that someone from Hall's office should have been overseeing the ballot printing to ensure accuracy.
"These types of mistakes are preventable and erode trust between the citizens and our democratic processes," McMullen said. "It is crucial to stop these costly errors so our elections can run smoothly, securely and transparently."
Hall told KOIN 6 News that the number of ballots with unreadable barcodes is high — likely two-thirds of the 309,000 ballots sent to Clackamas County voters. Between 80,000 and 122,000 ballots were returned in the past two primary elections, with over 50,000 machine-unreadable ballots likely to be turned in during the current election.
By McMullen's estimate, an error of that magnitude could cost the county over $125,000 in extra staffing costs.
Hall's office is fortunate to have extra time this year to count ballots, due to legislative changes shifting the close of polls from 8 p.m. on Election Day, to a postmark cutoff for receipt of ballots.
"There is no better election staff than the one we have here in Clackamas County, and we expect to meet all deadlines for the release of tallies and certification of results in spite of the increase in workload," Hall said.
Hall invited voters with concerns to observe the process.
"We can show anyone that wants to look at the duplicated ballot along with the original ballot to make sure that it's done exactly the same," Hall said.
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