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Bad Barcodes Could Delay Election Results in Ore. County

Election officials in Clackamas County, Ore., didn't notice a printing issue with the barcodes on election ballots that were sent to some voters. The county has a history of election ballot errors.

(TNS) — Clackamas County election officials sent ballots with defective barcodes to an unknown number of voters for the May 17 primary, an error that will cost the county extra money and will likely delay election results.

County Clerk Sherry Hall announced Wednesday that a printing error had caused the barcodes on many ballots to be blurred, making them unreadable by the county’s ballot processing equipment. Election officials didn’t notice the error before the ballots were sent to voters.

It’s one of at least four errors or misdeeds, one of them criminal, that have marred Clackamas County elections since 2010.

Hall said the defective ballots will still be counted, but the process of tallying those votes will take more time because election workers will have to fill out new ballots by hand for voters whose barcodes were defective. At least two election workers registered with different political parties will participate in the transferring of votes to the new ballots to ensure mistakes are avoided, Hall said. Election observers will witness the process, and the county will keep the damaged ballots on file.

The county has used a similar process in the past for ballots damaged in the mail or by election workers. But Hall said county workers have never had to handle an error of this magnitude.

Hall said the county doesn’t know how many defective ballots were sent to voters or how much extra the county will have to pay to transfer those votes to new ballots. However, she said somewhere between 56% to 64% of the first 375 ballots that the county ran through its ballot processing machine Wednesday were rejected. She said the company that printed the ballots uses four printing machines.

She said the county should have a better estimate by next week of the number of defective ballots. Fewer than 5% of ballots have been returned to the county so far.

Despite the error, Hall said the county expects to meet all deadlines for the release of tallies and certification of results, which are a week to three weeks after election night.

“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,” Hall said. “It is simply a matter of staffing up and scaling up a process that has been vetted and is already in use.”

Rebekah Stern Doll, elections manager for Clackamas County, said lawmakers gave election officials an extra week to count ballots this year, which should help the county navigate the error without substantially delaying results or necessitating the hiring of more personnel. She said election workers are going to work every day in the run-up to the election — instead of two days a week — counting votes due to the error. However, if many ballots come in on election night with defective barcodes, that could delay results. In the 2018 primary election, 32% of Clackamas County ballots cast were submitted on Election Day.

Deborah Scroggin, director for the Oregon Elections Division Director, said the state will work with Clackamas County to ensure votes are accurately counted and will direct the county to designate additional staff to participate in hand recounts following the election.

Another error that Clackamas County voters may notice this election cycle is in their voter pamphlets. Pamphlets that Clackamas County sent to voters for the May 17 election include an index page that lists multiple candidates on the wrong pages. Ben Morris, a spokesperson for the Oregon Secretary of State, said the index error was caused by a mistake at the state level, not at the county.

Hall, who has held the elected county clerk position since 2003, is being challenged this year by Catherine McMullen, who serves as a program specialist for the Multnomah County Elections Division and is certified as an elections administrator. The race will be on the November ballot.

In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, McMullen blasted Hall for what she called a “litany of election mistakes” during her opponent’s tenure as county clerk.

“These types of mistakes are preventable and erode trust between the citizens and our democratic processes,” she said in a statement. “It is crucial to stop these costly errors so our elections can run smoothly, securely, and transparently.”

In May 2010, Hall opted to reprint ballots that incorrectly included a commissioner’s race that should have appeared on the November ballot, even though a Circuit Court judge found that the county could have avoided the reprinting by including a note in voter packages alerting voters to the error. The reprinting cost the county $118,000, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Clackamas County also drew national attention in 2013 when a temporary elections worker filled in races left blank on two ballots for Republican candidates. Deanna Swenson, 55, received 90 days in jail and three years’ probation for her actions. A citizen committee that reviewed the situation found that Hall followed protocol, but still suggested improvements to prevent something similar from happening again.

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