Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Sherry Hall’s memo delivered Tuesday night
Within hours of the first returns on election night in Oregon, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan wanted Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall to produce a detailed plan as to when the votes would be fully counted.
It took a full week for Hall to deliver. Tuesday night, Hall released a plan via a memo on the county’s elections website. The memo says all of the votes will be counted within nine days, and the election will be certified as planned by June 13.
Thousands of Clackamas County ballots from the May 17 primary are in the process of being hand duplicated because a smudged barcode meant the tabulating machines could not read the ballots. Staff is currently copying votes from the original ballots onto new ones by hand. And the secretary of state’s office has grown increasingly exasperated with the slow vote tally and seeming lack of urgency from Hall.
Last week, Fagan’s deputy director of elections emailed Hall asking for detailed data to figure out how big of a problem they were facing as thousands of ballots botched in the printing error needed to be duplicated and scanned. The state official wanted to know: Did Hall’s team need more staff? More physical space?
At 10:23 a.m. Thursday, Hall responded to the email requesting additional data.
“This is adding additional hours of work for me and (a staff member) when we should be doing tasks to do with the Election at hand,” Hall wrote. She later added, “I will be tracking my hours as time to complete SOS assigned tasks during the election.”
Twenty-five minutes later, Fagan wrote back: “Sherry, With respect, all of the information we are asking for to work with you is directly related to the election at hand. To complete this work securely, transparently, accurately, and timely requires a plan. We are asking to see your plan and/or help create the plan.”
Hall responded with a word: “Noted.”
Later that evening, Fagan followed up again, asking for “essential math” to ensure Hall had the resources she needed to meet the statutory deadline of certifying the election results by June 13.
Fagan signed off with, “Please respond with urgency.”
A takeover is unlikely
The debacle has garnered a lot of attention. It inspired more conspiracy theories about Oregon’s vote-by-mail system and has meant certain races, like Oregon’s 5th Congressional District Democratic primary between U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, his challenger on the left, have yet to be officially called.
The move has prompted some to call on Fagan’s office to take over. But Hall remains the last elected county clerk in the tri-county area. In Multnomah and Washington counties, the clerks answer to county commissioners.
Hall, an elected official, only answers to the voters.
“The statute is very, very clear,” Fagan said. “And so, there are folks out there, I think just out of frustration saying, ‘Fagan should take over.’ It’s just simply the law doesn’t provide for that. Our north star is to make sure the voters of Oregon … have certainty in the accuracy of the results by June 13.”
If the secretary of state’s office were to take over, Fagan said, the state would end up with a “summer full of lawsuits” over whether the election was conducted legally.
“We’re not going to go anywhere near that. We’re going to make sure to stay in the boundaries of the law,” Fagan said.
Hall told Fagan’s office she would deliver a detailed written plan to her office Tuesday evening — and did.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor of history, philosophy and religion at Oregon State University, said it was certainly an “oddity” of American politics that we still have elected clerks, noting it dates back to antiquity.
The uncertainty around the May 17 election could lead to changes within Clackamas County.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, has called for a legislative inquiry into Hall’s actions after the vote count is complete and the election is certified. She also said she’s open to learning more about the idea of shifting to a professional clerk.
“We’ve seen the transition of Beaverton from an elected mayor to a professional city manager and Portland is looking at restructuring its charter and form of government,” Bynum wrote in message to OPB. “I think Multnomah County looked at not electing a sheriff … It’s a good question that perhaps will become clearer when we take testimony during the legislative hearings or if Clackamas County voters ask the commissioners to take up the question.”
Fagan also plans to audit the Clackamas County results after June 13.
As of Tuesday, the county had reported votes from 60,230 ballots, just over half of those it has received for the May 17 election, according to the county’s elections website.
Hall knew weeks before Election Day that the machines tabulating the votes were rejecting the ballots because of blurry barcodes. But she did not figure out how much staff was needed to tabulate the votes, and by election night the county had only processed about 10,000 ballots out of the 80,000 or so that had been returned.
This is not the first time Hall has received attention for a blunder. In 2012, after an employee in her office was indicted for filling in races for Republicans, questions were raised about her office’s practices. She has proven to be a controversial figure throughout her several decades in the office as well. In 2014, she refused to conduct marriage ceremonies of any kind following the legalization of same-sex marriage. She has also been fined for asking her employees to help her with her reelection campaign.
Hall has also recently come under fire for allowing a Schrader staffer to gain early access to the elections offices to watch ballots to be counted. Hall told reporters last week she had no idea how the staffer gained access, but video footage suggests she was nearby when it happened.
Hall is up for reelection in November.