Ballot issue delays key congressional results in Oregon — and seeds distrust in count
Primaries in a key competitive congressional district in Oregon have yet to be decided more than a week after voting ended because of a hangup over misprinted ballots.
More than half of the ballots in Oregon's third-most populous county have to be reprocessed because smudged barcodes rendered them unreadable by tabulating machines. The snafu has impacted tens of thousands of ballots in Clackamas County, and it's left the Democratic primary for Oregon's 5th Congressional District in limbo.
In that contest, centrist incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader significantly trails his more progressive opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner. As of 3 p.m. PT Thursday, McLeod-Skinner leads Schrader 58% to 42%, according to The Associated Press. (On the GOP side, Lori Chavez-DeRemer has declared victory; the AP hasn't called the race.)
If McLeod-Skinner holds on, it'd be the first time in 42 years that party-affiliated voters in Oregon ousted a sitting member of Congress in a primary election.
County administrators have redirected 200 staff from other departments to help carry out a time-intensive process of hand-copying the votes from defective ballots onto new, error-free ones. The process requires two people from differing political parties handling each ballot. County officials are providing nightly updates with new vote tallies, but they say they might not finalize results until closer to certification day on June 13 — weeks after the May 17 primary ended.
Calls for hand-counting ballots
Members of the public are allowed to observe the ballot reprocessing through plate-glass windows from a long hallway overseeing ballot workers. The workers wear colored lanyards to designate their political parties.
From the hallway, Renel Murr, a volunteer organizer with the local Republican Party, explained that she came to the elections building to keep an eye on ballot workers.
"We are being observers on this part of the electoral process just to make sure that everything is going smoothly and make sure there's no nefarious things going on," Murr said. "So we're just, you know, keeping them on their toes."
For some voters like Murr, the misprinted ballot fiasco has added to their underlying fears that ballot-counting machines aren't trustworthy, a belief rooted in the false theory that the 2020 general election was rigged against former President Donald Trump.
A small crowd of protesters this week gathered in front of the county elections building to protest the lack of results. They blamed counting machines, the state's mail-in voting system, multi-day voting and other conspiracies seeded by Trump supporters.
Hand-counting election results has become a fixation among some Republicans, with GOP lawmakers and local officials in states across the country advocating for proposals to ditch the ballot-tabulation machines. Election experts say going back to counting ballots by hand would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and the degree of human error would make election results less accurate.
Questions for the county clerk
Mistakes made by Clackamas County elections officials have added to some voters' distrust of the system, with the county's independently elected clerk, Sherry Hall, at the center of most criticisms. Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, the state's top election official, has slammed Hall for several alleged missteps, including not acting urgently when she first learned of the misprinted ballots. Hall would later admit that she should have acted sooner, but wouldn't explain why she didn't.
"I just didn't," Hall said. "I don't have any other reason but just to say that I didn't."
Hall — whose Facebook page "likes" several far-right pages, including one that promotes Trump's false claim that the election was stolen — was also caught in an apparent lie to reporters. At a press conference last week, she said her office had no idea how someone from Schrader's campaign gained early access to watch workers count ballots. Video footage released by the county showed her speaking with an employee before they let the campaign person into the building. McLeod-Skinner has called for an investigation of the incident, and Fagan has called the video footage "outrageous." Hall hasn't commented on the video footage.
The lack of clear answers has left some voters wondering if these mistakes were intentional, adding to their already-festering distrust in the elections system.
It's what brought local voter Jim Arn to the elections observers' hallway the day after Election Day. Arn said he doesn't trust ballot counting machines.
"You don't know. It's going in a black box," Arn said. "I'd like to have somebody look in those machines and see what's in them."
Arn said he believes in the false allegations that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and he said that this blunder with his local elections office adds to his fears.
"It's just really convenient, right?" Arn said.