Hall of Errors

A ballot-tampering probe highlights a history of problems under the Clackamas County clerk.

The news last week that a temporary Clackamas County elections worker got caught filling in votes for Republican candidates has put a cloud over the voting results in Oregon's third-largest county.

But people who have watched the elections office under Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall weren't surprised.

"There have been so many problems in the elections office during Sherry Hall's leadership, it's impossible for me to think about this instance outside of that context," says Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger, who has clashed with Hall in the past. "I think it's part of an overall issue of job performance."

The investigation centers on Deanna Swenson, who investigators believe penciled in a straight Republican ticket on ballots where voters left their preferences blank. Swenson, 55, told WW this week the investigation involves only two ballots. Secretary of State Kate Brown said Nov. 6, however, six ballots are involved. 

Clackamas County elects its clerk, unlike Multnomah and Washington counties, where the position is appointed. 

Hall graduated from Milwaukie's Rex Putnam High School and attended Eastern Oregon University. She was a legal secretary in the Clackamas County district attorney's office when she first ran for clerk in 2002, listing her government experience as serving on a DUII impact panel and the Oregon Trail Pageant Board. 

After Hall took office, things quickly went wrong.

In a 2004 election in Sandy, voters received incorrect ballots and the election had to be repeated. 

In 2008, Democrat Toby Forsberg and Republican Bill Kennemer were deadlocked in an Oregon House race in Clackamas County. Rep. Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) says Hall excluded only Democratic observers, then had her staff continue processing ballots. Kennemer won by 487 votes out of more than 28,000 cast.

"Kennemer got something like 65 percent of the late votes," Hunt says. "If there'd been Democratic observers there, you'd have more confidence in the result."

In 2010, Hall included the race for Position 3 on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners on the May ballot, even though it was not supposed to be contested until November. The state Elections Division ordered all county ballots to be reprinted at a cost of $118,000. Voters' pamphlets also contained wrong information. 

In 2011, state Elections Director Steve Trout had to monitor the county's process for verifying petition signatures after he concluded Hall's office had accepted invalid signatures for a measure to require voter approval of county funding for light rail.

The issue now is how thoroughly Hall's office screens temporary elections workers. 

Assistant county counsel Scot Sideras told commissioners Nov. 5 the process for hiring temporary elections workers appears to be ad hoc. 

Rather than go through a rigorous process, Sideras told commissioners, Hall's office hires the same people year after year, and "those who've done it before recommend others.”  

Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling says ballot processing ought to be standardized, secure and performed by people selected for their competence. 

“It appears,” Keisling says of Clackamas County, “there were breakdowns in some very basic processes.” 

WWeek 2015

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