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County clerk blames printing and mailing errors on contract firms, but board chair says, 'it happened to us'

Clackamas County commissioners are considering a third-party review of what went wrong in the May 17 primary and Aug. 23 special elections, in order to insure that things go right for the Nov. 8 general election.

They also said they want a written report from County Clerk Sherry Hall, who defended her corrective actions for both elections during an Aug. 10 session with the commissioners.

Commissioner Paul Savas, who is up for re-election, supports such a review — he does not want to call it an investigation — and preferably by someone outside the county and Oregon.

"I believe it would be smart for us to do that," he said toward the close of the 100-minute session. "I think it would be irresponsible for us to do something else but that. I can see there is opportunity for improvement. If we are not doing that, we are not doing our job."

Although Hall gave a detailed timetable of what happened and how the county finally certified its primary election results by a June 13 deadline, Commissioner Sonya Fischer said it would be helpful for her and others to have a written report.

"I don't know what is happening in the clerk's office," said Fischer, who is also up for re-election. "I know you are an independently elected official. I get that and I am sure you get plenty of calls. But we get those calls too — and we have no ability to insert ourselves to make sure there is quality assurance."

Like the county's other independently elected officials, Hall is subject to budget control by the five commissioners and five public appointees who comprise the county budget committee.

Hall, who also is up for re-election, said she would be willing to cooperate with an outside review if the reviewers were familiar with Oregon election laws.

County Administrator Gary Schmidt said there is nothing that blocks the county board from seeking an outside review despite Hall's elected status. But he said its success would depend on Hall's cooperation.

Five years ago, the county board hired OIR Group to review how the sheriff investigated complaints. It did so after Sheriff Craig Roberts drew criticism for an internal investigation of how a former sheriff's detective failed to investigate criminal cases — that person eventually pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges — and also sought to look at the assignment, tracking and other procedures for child-abuse cases.

"In my opinion, that did not go well because the elected official was not willing to cooperate," said Schmidt, who then was the county's director of public and government affairs. Roberts initially welcomed the review, but then became at odds with the board. He chose to retire in 2020 after 16 years as sheriff.

What Hall said

Hall, for her part, blamed the county's contract printer for faulty bar codes that required county workers and others to duplicate thousands of mail ballots by hand for the May 17 primary election. Another printer, which also has done previous work for the county, will do ballots for the Nov. 8 general election.

She blamed a mailing service for sending the wrong voters pamphlet to thousands of Oregon City voters who will cast mail ballots in a special election for mayor on Aug. 23.

"Things happen," Hall, who herself is up for re-election, said. "We try to correct them. We don't control everybody's work ethic or the way they do their job."

Commissioner Mark Shull said he understood Hall's point. He said he wasn't trying to assign blame.

"But when the clerk's office employee outside agencies like printers and mail houses, the bottom line is that you cannot delegate that responsibility," he said. "You cannot give that up to somebody else."

Once Hall said she realized that the misprinted ballots would require corrective action, she chose hand duplication of mail ballots as the least onerous alternative with the full knowledge of county officials and the Oregon secretary of state. Other potential choices involved newly printed ballots — Hall said that would have caused more public confusion — or adjustments to the optical-scanning machines that read the returned ballots. But the machines had already been tested officially.

Hall did acknowledge that she underestimated the number of ballots that required duplication, based on their slow return rate before the primary. The countywide return rate was 21.4% on May 16, the day before the election; the actual rate was nearly double at 38.2% when all ballots came in. This is due in part to a 2021 state law that took effect this year allowing mail ballots to count if they are postmarked by election day, not just in the hands of county officials, as was the case in past mail-in elections.

That rate exceeded the statewide return of 37.8% and rates in Washington (37.8%) and Multnomah (36.8%) counties.

Previous countywide return rates for ballots in primary elections — excluding presidential years, when participation is historically greater — were 28.76% in 2018, 30.9% in 2014, and 37.28% in 2010.

The process resulted in several hundred thousand dollars in extra costs, primarily for the 6,700 hours that county workers and others spent in the weeks after the primary to duplicate ballots.

It also resulted in a delayed count for the Democratic nominee in Oregon's 5th Congressional District. Incumbent Kurt Schrader of Canby did prevail in the countywide tally, but it was not enough to overcome his losses elsewhere in the newly redrawn district to challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne.

'It happened to us'

In addition to the regular post-election audit required by law in all 36 counties, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan ordered a more extensive audit for Clackamas County on June 10. Results were completed on June 23, and it turned up only one ballot that was duplicated incorrectly among the batches of ballots sampled. There were minor discrepancies in vote totals for selected races, but they did not affect the standing of candidates.

Unrelated to the primary election fiasco was another error, which involved thousands of voters in Oregon City receiving their ballots for mayor in an Aug. 23 special election with an error in the voters' pamphlet for a different election being held for Oak Lodge Water Services District residents, who live across the Clackamas River and several miles to the north. About 3,800 households in the McLoughlin and Park Place neighborhoods will receive the correct voters pamphlet in a separate mailing.

Hall said elections officials in other counties told her that similar errors could have happened to them.

"It is amazing it hasn't happened before," Board Chair Tootie Smith agreed. "But the problem is that it happened to us."

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