Three weeks after state elections director Deborah Scroggin abruptly resigned, emails and interviews with involved parties reveal a deep disconnect between Scroggin and her supervisors, including Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.
Scroggin’s Dec. 9 resignation came 18 months after Fagan hailed her hiring from the city of Portland’s Elections Office following a nationwide search. “Deborah is the right person at the right time,” Fagan said in April 2021.
But records WW obtained through a public records request and interviews with those involved show that Scroggin, a stickler for rules and transparency, and Fagan, a Democrat who rose rapidly to the state’s second-highest office in 2020 based on her bold approach to politics, were never on the same page.
A former legislator—she distinguished herself in the Capitol as a fierce tenant advocate and one of the few willing to challenge former Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem)—Fagan oversees Oregon elections.
She’s talked at length about building public trust during a time of unprecedented interest in the wonky, somewhat mechanical process of running elections. Encouraged or enraged by the lies former President Donald Trump has spread after his defeat in 2020, Americans have taken a newfound interest in the preparations for elections and the tabulation of votes.
“It’s been building for a while,” says political science professor Paul Gronke, who directs the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College. “But 2020 dramatically increased the amount of attention people pay to the voting process.”
Fagan’s hand-picked point person: Scroggin, until last month.
Initially, the Associated Press reported that Scroggin stepped down because of the pressure of dealing with misinformation about elections. But when WW called her to confirm that explanation, Scroggin said Fagan had, in fact, asked for her resignation. The move left Scroggin “stunned.”
For her part, Fagan, a former employment lawyer, told WW she would have preferred to keep the matter private, but when pressed for an explanation, she said Scroggin had resisted her desire for greater “customer service.”
Interviews and emails obtained by WW over the past two weeks explain what Fagan meant by that: She saw the Elections Division’s primary role as advising campaigns, while Scroggin preferred to police them.
Exhibit A: Deadlines
As an example of how Scroggin wasn’t “customer friendly,” Fagan cited the case of former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith. Smith was one of a handful of candidates who submitted Voters’ Pamphlet information late to Scroggin’s office for the May 2022 primary. (Smith sought the Democratic nomination in Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District.)
Smith’s submission came in 21 seconds after the 5 pm deadline. Unlike the other candidates who submitted late, Smith appealed for forgiveness. Scroggin said no.
When Fagan later learned of Scroggin’s decision, she says, she evaluated the circumstances: Smith had tried to submit her information prior to the deadline, but the first credit card she used was rejected, making her late. Fagan overruled Scroggin.
Fagan says Scroggin’s rigidity was contrary to the tone she wanted to set in all areas of the Secretary of State’s Office—which, in addition to Elections, includes State Archives, Audits, and Corporation divisions.
“This is not how I operate,” Fagan says of Scroggin’s denial of Smith’s appeal. Fagan says there was no urgency because the materials weren’t going to the printer for another 10 days: “To kick someone out of the Voters’ Pamphlet is a very drastic remedy.” Fagan adds that Scroggin should have consulted others before deciding Smith’s case but that she regularly acted unilaterally.
Scroggin says she believes she was appropriately following past practice. “Deadlines are critical for the public and elections administrators to conduct elections freely, fairly, and transparently,” she said in a written response to WW’s questions. “The candidate in this case began the transaction shortly before the 5 pm deadline, which is not advisable.”
Exhibit B: Naming and Shaming
Emails show a broader disconnect between Scroggin and the secretary of state’s management team, running along the same fault lines.
One of the Elections Division’s responsibilities is monitoring compliance with Oregon’s campaign finance reporting rules. That’s a big job because Oregon is one of just five states with no limits on campaign contributions. Failure to report accurately or on time could give campaigns a tactical advantage.
For more than a year, Scroggin pushed to launch a publicly accessible website that would show which campaigns were in violation. The IT team built the site, but it never went live.
In a Nov. 21, 2022, email to her superiors, Scroggin expressed frustration with repeated delays.
“The website has expired twice and I really hate to bother [IT staff] to ask them to create it yet again,” Scroggin wrote. “I looked into the number of states that provide this information, and it is a sizable amount. We are an outlier in the lack of information we provide in this space.”
Fagan is an ambitious politician with strong ties to Democratic special interests that regularly make political contributions. She won election in 2020 with strong backing from public employee unions.
But she says the delay in the transparency website had nothing to do with protecting any donor or group (and there’s no evidence to the contrary). In fact, Fagan says, she has always been supportive of disclosing campaign finance reporting violations but preferred to have elections staff focus on making sure the 2022 elections occurred without any hiccups.
“We just said let’s just hunker down on our core mission, not be distracted by shiny new initiatives,” Fagan says. “There’s just risk rolling out any new initiative in an election year.” She adds she hopes the website will go live soon.
Scroggin disputes that characterization.
“The idea was opposed by executive staff repeatedly,” she says. “The Elections Division was told most recently in late November it wouldn’t be moving forward with the page in January and that it wasn’t a customer service-friendly approach.”
Exhibit C: Investigations
Scroggin says she also pushed for more investigators to help with the agency’s backlog of hundreds of elections complaints. The Elections Division currently employs just one full-time and two part-time investigators, which Scroggin says made completing investigations in a timely manner “very challenging.”
She adds she disagreed with a decision of Fagan’s to produce public service announcements about election misinformation rather than “the focus being on compiling, analyzing and countering misinformation.”
Fagan says she agrees the agency needs more investigators and has made that a top priority for next year’s budget. She dismisses the idea that she was less interested in accountability and transparency than Scroggin.
Philosophically, Fagan says, they were on the same page but that episodes like denying Smith access to the Voters’ Pamphlet showed her that Scroggin “just didn’t get it.”
Emails show that Scroggin’s direct supervisor, deputy secretary of state Cheryl Myers, shared that view. On the afternoon of Oct. 6, emails show, Myers wanted Scroggin to prepare talking points for a meeting with federal elections officials. Scroggin replied to Meyers that she was focused on issues in Clackamas County elections and that the officials were well briefed already. One of her colleagues chimed in with bullet points for the briefing, which Scroggin augmented in the Slack communication chain.
To Myers, the exchange was further evidence Scroggin’s focus was misplaced.
“I’ve coached, and provided ongoing feedback, to little avail,” Myers wrote to Fagan. “A lack of customer service mindset is deeply concerning.”
Myers suggested Fagan get rid of Scroggin after the November election. And that’s what happened.
The move caught county elections clerks—none of whom WW contacted would speak for the record—by surprise.
Scroggin says she’s perplexed by Myers’ view of her. She says she asked for a performance review but never got one.
“I have spent my career focused on customer service and, from my perspective, was certainly a team player,” Scroggin says. “In my mind, the customer is the 4 million Oregonians.”