State 'owns mistake' in talk of Clackamas County ballot printing error
If the state's intervention plans into a Clackamas County election issue sounded too good to be true, that's because they were false.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan imagined a scenario in which there would be no delays in election results, but unfortunately, Clackamas County residents will likely have to wait until June for final results on close May 17 races. Fagan said on May 11 that a "machine system … will create a duplicate ballot" and that "no one is in there filling in bubbles by hand," but this was an incorrect statement.
Ben Morris, communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State, said on May 12 that Fagan is "owning the error" in discussing the details of how Clackamas County is correcting defective ballot barcodes. The system as reported by this newspaper last week remains in place.
Pamplin Media Group has observed the process for accurately counting votes with defective barcodes. Over 50,000 ballots with barcode issues are being painstakingly copied by hand, which could lead to more than an extra $100,000 cost to the county, but will eventually lead to results that voters can trust.
"Clackamas is doing it manually," Morris said. "When they receive a ballot that won't scan, the voters' intent will be transferred by hand to a new ballot. This will be done by teams of two people from different parties. One team member will read the votes, and the other will mark the votes on a new ballot. Then the team members will switch roles and proof the ballot. The original ballot will be retained and indexed to match it to the corresponding new ballot. The new ballot will be put back into the counting machines to be tallied."
Morris said that the secretary of state could have stepped in and authorized the use of a machine for copying ballots under provisions that allow for state interventions in "extraordinary circumstances," which was the source of Fagan's error in describing the plans for ballot counting in Clackamas County. While the Americans With Disabilities Act could have provided a legal basis for the use of a ballot copying machine, Morris said that state and county agreed that the county should be following the typical provisions laid out for damaged ballots in the Oregon Vote by Mail Procedures Manual, and simply expanding this process for what is estimated to be over 60% of all ballots that voters will turn in.
Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall was concerned about the state even having considered an intervention.
"We are the ones doing the process for Clackamas County," Hall said.
County Administrator Gary Schmidt authorized up to 37 employees who have duties in other county departments to work shifts at the elections office.
"This is a lot of extra work, but we will get it done," Hall said.
Earlier on May 12, Hall was facing county commissioners who also wanted assurances that the votes would be counted accurately. Elected officials left the hearing room satisfied that the results will be correct, even as they grumbled about the extra costs for the county clerk's office that acknowledged gaps in its quality-control measures for contracting print jobs.
"We learned that this should never happen; we should be building trust in voters, but this issue has really caused lots of questions," Hall told commissioners.
County Commissioner Sonya Fischer was among the elected officials asking Hall tough questions, including how the county would be reimbursed for the extra staffing costs. Hall declined to estimate the total extra staffing costs but said that her office will be tracking the extra cost as the total number of ballots with faulty barcodes becomes known. Her attorney said that the printer had assured her that the printer itself would be doing its own quality control, alluding to a potential legal claim against the printer.
"What's our quality control to make sure that the standards set out are followed?" Fischer asked.
Hall said that quality-control standards were another learning experience for her office, which has not visited the printer since 2020, when the printer was no longer certified by Hart InterCivic Verity Scan. Yamhill and Marion counties use this same ballot scanning and tabulating device, but no other county uses Moonlight, the Bend-based printer that produced the defective barcodes.
"This is definitely something we will be working on with how the printers should be doing their own quality control, but because of this we are definitely going to want to know that, and that's one of the learning pieces," Hall told county commissioners.
Election officials also told county commissioners that the usual person working at Moonlight, which the clerk has used for a decade, was not spearheading the latest defective print job. Since the elections office knew of the staffing changes, county commissioners asked why there was not more oversight by the county at the printer.
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