Shemia Fagan pledges accurate count amid 'outrageous' debacle
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan reiterated her commitment to exercising her full legal power in helping Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall conduct a fair and accurate primary election despite "frustrating" and "outrageous" management thus far from the elected clerk.
Fagan pledged during a press conference on Tuesday, May 24, that "every vote will be counted and every voice will be heard," adding that this will require collaborating with Hall, who is the only person with the legal authority to conduct an election in the county.
Later that evening, Hall responded to Fagan's formal request for detailed plan outlining the tallying timeline, promising election workers will finish counting defective primary election ballots by Thursday, June 2.
Hall's memo, which said the county had received a total of 116,012 ballots noted that 57,550 of ballots received have been counted and uploaded, with 7,543 duplicated and 38,381 yet to be duplicated as of 7 p.m. Monday, May 23.
Hall did not immediately respond to a Pamplin Media Group email asking the clerk why the total number of ballots reportedly counted, duplicated, and yet to be duplicated adds up to 103,474, significantly less than the indicated total number received of 116,012. A spokesperson for Fagan's office said they have also inquired about the discrepancy.
A spokesperson for the county said that the election office has been unable to answer questions from reporters due to an "emerging situation" at the office.
"A group of activists have gathered. So far about 25 people and two dogs," wrote county spokesperson Kimberly Dinwiddie-Webb on May 25. "At this time, we are not expecting this to interfere with the ballot processing. Currently, there are no security concerns. We will let know if this changes."
During Tuesday's meeting, Oregon's chief elections officer confirmed she is unable to "take over" the delayed county election after Hall was made aware weeks in advance of a ballot misprint possibly impacting up to two-thirds of ballots — yet did not accept help offered by Fagan and county officials.
Fagan said that overtaking the election "would be in violation of state law, and it would also conflict with my constitutional responsibility to oversee and audit the election results in Clackamas."
"It would cause uncertainty by risking a summer of lawsuits over whether the results of an election conducted by someone other than the county clerk was a lawfully conducted election," she added.
Fagan said she first learned of the printing issue on May 3 and reached out to Hall within 24 hours to help set up the process of securely duplicating and correcting impacted ballots, an offer she says Hall refused.
"We inquired about availability of resources at that time to complete that work, and the Clackamas County clerk reported at that time that they had sufficient resources in the county to complete the work by the deadline," Fagan said.
Hall reiterated this claim to have enough help at the Board of County Commissioners' May 12 meeting, and Fagan said that her office received no further updates from the clerk until after a deputy with the state's Elections Division alerted Fagan of staffing level concerns on May 16, the day prior to election day.
"We then offered to provide additional resources at that time, including sending our own staff, facilitating support from other counties and providing experienced managers who know how to quickly stand up a large operation. That help was not accepted," Fagan said.
Fagan has herself observed the Clackamas tallying process in-person and said her office has been on-site at the elections office every day since May 16. Fagan asked "three different times" how many ballots had been counted to that point," to which she claimed "they simply would not and could not give us an answer."
"It was very surprising and disappointing that the county had not adequately staffed up to tally the number of ballots it was receiving, despite our best efforts to help," Fagan said. "The amount of ballots that they had actually processed on election night came as a disappointment, not only to me, but I know to many people who had been told that they had resources that they needed to get this done."
Fagan said that in the following days, she did not hear back from Hall on any of her offerings including "the assistance of elections experts from the Oregon Elections Division, … information in an email on how to estimate your operations capacity and create a timeline," and additional staffing resources.
On Wedneday, May 18, Luke Belant, deputy director of the state's Elections Division, sent Hall an informal instruction outlining a request for the county's tallying plans. Hall requested an additional day, citing the need for additional information from the first day of fully-staffed ballot duplication efforts that Fagan said did not take place until Monday.
Hall responded Thursday morning that she was working on a response, a task she said was "adding additional hours of work" for her and her staff, continuing that they "should be doing tasks to do with the election at hand."
About 25 minutes later, Fagan wrote to Hall: "With respect, all of the information we are asking for to work with you is directly related to the election at hand. To complete this work securely, transparently, accurately, and timely requires a plan. We are asking to see your plan and/or help create the plan."
Just over an hour later, Hall simply replied: "Noted."
On Friday, Fagan said her office sent a "formal legal instruction to the clerk to provide us with a plan and a timeline for completing their work."
Continuing to monitor the elections process on-site via senior elections personnel through the weekend, Fagan said a "productive meeting" was then held the following Monday, May 23, between herself, Hall, Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith and county election officials reviewing the written plan as well as election security procedures, which she said are classified.
To gain as much expert counsel as possible throughout the process, Fagan said she has been in contact with a number of former secretaries of state.
She said ex-officials "expressed empathy for the situation, how frustrating it is, but none of them had dealt with anything quite like this on this scale before."
Clackamas is the only county in the Metro area with an independently elected clerk who is not directly accountable to the Board of Commissioners as an employee. Fagan said, "I think that's something that the Legislature is going to have to grapple with, whether this is a model that works for such a large county."
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