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Fagan says blurry ballots in major battleground county won’t cripple primary vote count

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Oregon Capital Bureau

A smeared barcode on ballots in Oregon’s third most populous county won’t significantly delay Tuesday’s primary election vote count, the state’s top election official said Wednesday.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said a long-used machine system for counting damaged or soiled ballots will create a duplicate ballot that can be tallied in relatively short time.

“It’s not typically done on this scale,” Fagan said. 

Representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties will be on hand to monitor the process. 

The blurry ballots were issued by Clackamas County near Portland, which sent 306,970 ballots to registered voters, according to Fagan’s office. As of Wednesday, the county reported 30,759 had been returned via mail or drop box collections.

Clackamas ranks behind only Multnomah and Washington counties in population. It is a linchpin in several key races on Tuesday, including three congressional races that include portions of the county.

U.S Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, is seeking re-election to his 5th Congressional District seat that was significantly changed in redistricting for the 2022 election. The lawmaker from Clackamas County is running in a district that now stretches from Portland, across the Cascades to northern Deschutes County, including Bend. 

Schrader is being challenged in the Democratic primary by attorney and Central Oregon resident Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who has won endorsement of four Democratic county parties within the district, including Clackamas County.

“45% of OR-5 Democratic voters reside in Clackamas County,” wrote Monica Klein, McLeod-Skinner’s spokesperson, in an email Wednesday.

On the Republican side of the same race, Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer is counting on strong support from the suburban Portland area to beat fellow Clackamas County GOP candidate John Di Paola of Wilsonville, as well as Jimmy Crumpacker of Bend.

Clackamas County also includes portions of the new 6th Congressional District, as well as the strongly-Democratic 3rd Congressional District.

Unlike strongly liberal Multnomah and Washington counties, Clackamas County includes large pockets of Republican voters who will pick candidates for swing district seats in the Legislature. 

The county is also a key battleground for the 19 Republicans and 15 Democrats seeking the governorship. 

Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall said May 4 that the error was found during a preliminary run of ballots when a counting machine could not read the barcode on an initial run of ballots.

Since Oregon uses a decentralized voting system with each county printing, mailing, gathering and returning ballots, the problem is limited to Clackamas County, Fagan said Wednesday.

Fagan said Oregon’s experience with mail-in ballots that goes back to the late 20th century ensures elections are fair and maximize potential voter turnout. 

“When ballots are returned, officials use handwriting analysis to verify every single ballot signature, unique barcodes are on every ballot, cameras broadcast every space where ballots are handled in our elections offices, and observers are invited to watch the process,” she said.

Oregon’s vote-by-mail system was created and refined by Democrats and Republicans over several elections.

It’s “the gold standard,” Fagan said.

Hall was also the Clackamas County clerk during a 2013 incident in which two temporary elections workers filled in votes on two Republican ballots left blank by the actual voters. One worker was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years of probation. A review of Hall’s oversight found she had followed proper procedures but called for improved oversight of workers and ballots.

Fagan said the current system ensures there will be no repeat of the earlier problems.

“No one is in there filling in bubbles by hand,” she said.

Fagan had called Wednesday’s Zoom press conference as part of an ongoing effort to inform voters of vote-by-mail laws, including a new feature for 2022 that will allow ballots postmarked Tuesday or earlier to be counted if they arrive within the following week. No ballots with postmarks after Tuesday will be counted and any arriving after May 24 will not be counted, regardless of the postmark.

Fagan announced earlier this week that a campaign finance firm with access to the state’s ORESTAR election records system had been the target of a cyber-attack. The Secretary of State required all users to change their passwords and rebooted the system.

“The most important thing for us to get out to Oregon voters, is that Oregonians’ information in the Secretary of State’s database is safe and uncompromised.”

Fagan on Wednesday also said she had spent the past week “conquering” a COVID-19 infection and had spent her quarantine period watching the pre-season games of the WNBA.

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