Ballot fiasco delays results in mail-in voting pioneer Oregon

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OREGON CITY, Ore. – Thousands of ballots with fuzzy barcodes that cannot be read by vote-counting machines will delay results by weeks in a key U.S. race in The Oregon primary election, a shocking development that puts a black eye on a pioneering mail-in voting state with a national reputation as a leader in voter access and fairness.

The fiasco affects up to 60,000 ballots, two-thirds of the roughly 90,000 returned so far in Oregon‘s third-largest county. Hundreds of ballots were still arriving under a new law that allows them to be counted as long as they are postmarked on Election Day, and 200 Clackamas County workers were undergoing a crash course Thursday on the counting of votes after being redeployed to deal with the crisis.

Election workers must remove defective ballots from batches of 125, transfer the voter’s intent to a new ballot, then recheck their entries – a painstaking process that could extend the election until June 13, when Oregon certifies its vote. The workers operate in pairs, a Democrat and a Republican, in two shifts of 11 hours a day.

Voters from both political parties moved through a narrow room with windows that allowed workers to see the workers opening the ballots, transferring the votes, examining the marked ballots and operating the counting machines. They expressed shock at the mistake and anger at the slow response of embattled election clerk Sherry Hall, who has held the elected office for nearly 20 years. As of Wednesday evening, workers had counted 15,649.

“It takes my breath away,” said Ron Smith, a Clackamas County voter. “It’s a bit debatable. That’s why I’m here. … With everything going on, we don’t need any further suspicion. It looks like something like this would have been tested correctly at the start of this whole process.

The debacle stunned Oregon, where all ballots were cast only by mail for 23 years and lawmakers have consistently pushed to expand voter access through automatic voter registration, extended deadlines and to other measures. It is also in question a key race of the American House in a redesigned district that includes much of Clackamas County, which spans nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers), from the liberal southern suburbs from Portland to conservative rural communities on the flanks of Mount Hood.

In the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 5th congressional district, seven-term Rep. Kurt Schrader, a moderate, trailed in the vote behind progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The result could have an outsized impact in November, with the possibility that voters could flip the seat for the GOP.

Hall said the problem came to light on May 3, when workers submitted the first returned ballots to the counting machine. About 70 or 80 ballots from each batch of 125 were spat out as unreadable because their barcodes were fainter and slightly blurry. It was too late to print and send new ballots, she said.

As Election Day approached and ballots piled up, Hall said she allowed poll workers to take the weekend off because only three people signed up to work Saturday or Sunday. “We have people mostly in their 70s to 85s” and they need some rest, she said.

The secretary of state’s office said Hall refused help, saying Clackamas County could handle the situation. Hall told The Associated Press that several county staff were assigned to the ballot issue on May 11, a week after it surfaced.

Kathy Selvaggio, who lives in the county’s most urban and affluent suburbs, looked out the windows Thursday to watch the vote count.

“Mail-in voting works, it works well here, but it undermines my faith in (Hall),” said Selvaggio, who was there as a volunteer for the McLeod-Skinner campaign.

Hall said his department had discussed running test bulletins from the printer before they were mailed out, but his office had used the printer in question for 10 years without any issues. .

“There are a lot of other jobs to do,” Hall, who is up for re-election in November, told AP. “I hate that this happened with our ballots. It’s horrible. We have to build trust with voters and it’s not a trustworthy coin, but we’re doing what we can.

This isn’t the first time Hall has come under fire in her campaign role. In 2012, a temporary election worker was sentenced to 90 days in jail after admitting to tampering with two ballots. In 2014, Hall was criticized for using the phrase “Democratic Party” – a pejorative used by Republicans to demean Democrats – on a primary ballot instead of the Democratic Party.

Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said she was “deeply concerned” about the most recent situation, and her office released a statement on Tuesday calling the delay “unacceptable.” But state election officials said Thursday they have little authority over local county election officials.

“The independence of county clerks is an important part of the electoral system and at this time we are focused on supporting them,” agency spokesman Ben Morris said.

State law does not require county election officials to run ballots through their machines before mailing them.

Christopher Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation to change that.

“I think all of these issues, of course, are bad in the short term,” he said. “But in the long run, they will lead to improvements, because people will see that these things are problems and they will find ways to improve them.”

Former Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan was closely watching the statewide results Tuesday night. She was ultimately declared the winner of the GOP governor’s primary the following night.

“I understood going into election night that Clackamas County knew this was a challenge,” Drazan said. “So the fact that we weren’t quite there on election night was just a fact that we had to accept and find out more about how the county was going to react to that.”

She said voters concerned about the integrity of the process should come watch it in person.

“He should have been dealt with sooner with this level of urgency, but it’s quite rare to have a printing issue like this,” Drazan said.

Cline reported from Portland, Oregon.

Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus

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