Kurt Schrader’s Future Hangs on 90,000 Clackamas County Ballots With Defective Bar Codes

Blurry bar codes are the new hanging chads.

Sometimes, home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Kurt Schrader, a large-animal veterinarian, is the proud son of Clackamas County soil, but the place hasn’t been good to him in the current election.

First, the county’s Democratic Party endorsed his rival, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, snubbing the homegrown seven-term congressman. Then, county elections officials mailed out ballots with blurry bar codes that must be duplicated by hand before they can be run through machines. The glitch means Schrader won’t know his fate for days, or even weeks.

Results from Oregon’s 5th Congressional District so far show McLeod-Skinner beating Schrader by 61% to 39% with about half the votes counted. Clackamas County offers a faint hope for Schrader. He leads there by 57% to 42%, but a comically low number of votes have been counted. Schrader has 744 to McLeod-Skinner’s 553.

McLeod-Skinner struck an upbeat tone on Twitter. “While it’s still too early to tell, the trend looks good,” McLeod-Skinner said. “There are still many ballots to count, mostly in Clackamas County.”

Schrader’s Twitter feed was quiet, but he put out a statement. “We still don’t have an answer as to the final outcome in this election, but I remain optimistic that our message to Oregon families has resonated with voters across the Fifth Congressional District,” Schrader said. “We will wait until the final votes are counted, including those here in Clackamas County, because every vote matters.”

The debacle in Clackamas County has plunged Schrader into a waiting game similar to the one that befell Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election against George W. Bush, when a “butterfly ballot” confused voters in Florida. Gore didn’t concede the race until Dec. 13, after a 36-day legal battle.

Clackamas County officials are scrambling to set up a system for duplicating the ballots, which is no easy feat. It requires forming teams of two, with one person from each political party. One person takes the flawed ballot and marks up a new one, reproducing the voter’s choice. The other checks the work.

All of that requires time. Clackamas County Counsel Stephen Madkour said he and a colleague assisted with the count this week. It took the two of them six hours to duplicate 144 ballots.

“It was very slow, painstaking, tedious, careful, precise work,” Madkour said at an emergency meeting of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners this morning.

County officials estimate there are at least 90,000 ballots that must be duplicated and then machine counted. At a press conference today, County Chair Tootie Smith said she was sending 200 employees to help with the count and that they would work in two shifts, starting tomorrow.

“This was a huge mistake, but this is the hand we were dealt,” Smith said.

The county couldn’t say when the results would be known. The ballots were printed by a company in Bend that has printed ballots for Clackamas County for 10 years, county officials said.

At the emergency meeting, county commissioners sharply questioned County Clerk Sherry Hall’s handling of the matter. An elected official, Hall is responsible for elections in the county. County officials knew about the bad bar codes at least a week ago. Commissioner Sonya Fischer said she emailed Hall last Friday asking if the county could help with the duplication and if elections staff would count votes over the weekend. Hall didn’t respond, Fischer said.

“I would like some assurances that she is going to accept our help,” Fischer said.

Hall has a history of clashing with officials seeking better performance from her. In 2012, a temporary Clackamas County elections worker got caught filling in votes for Republican candidates. Ann Lininger, a county commissioner at the time, told WW that she wasn’t surprised.

“There have been so many problems in the elections office during Sherry Hall’s leadership,” Lininger said on Nov. 6, 2012. “I think it’s part of an overall issue of job performance.”

Today, Hall blamed the delay in counting, in part, on the media coverage. “It really delays our process when we have to be pulled out to talk,” Hall said at the emergency meeting.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan weighed in on the Clackamas mess last night.

“As Oregon’s chief election officer, and a Clackamas County voter, I am deeply concerned about the delay in reporting from Clackamas County Elections tonight,” Fagan said in a statement. “Voters have done their jobs, and now it’s time for Clackamas County Elections to do theirs. In recent days, my office and other counties have offered extra personnel to help with timely reporting. We eagerly await a response from county elections officials on how we can aid in the timely processing of results. I am disappointed that we have not seen more urgency from elections officials in Clackamas County.”

Kurt Schrader is probably disappointed, too. For him, an eighth term in Congress hangs in the balance.