Candidate Says Clackamas County Can Adopt These Reforms to Prevent Another Election Debacle
Catherine McMullen, who is challenging Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall for that role, weighs changes, including moving to a home-rule charter, to prevent the May primary fiasco from happening again
Clackamas County’s high-profile blurred barcode errors and the resulting inadequate and nonurgent response from the elected clerk has prompted the question, “How do we keep this from ever happening again?” The May Primary Election debacle was one of many costly errors and avoidable mishaps made by the clerk over her more than twenty-year time as an elected official. Despite this long history of errors, Clerk Hall, who was initially appointed after a vacancy in 2003, is going to be on the ballot again in November for another four-year term. Many are now asking the question; “Should county-level head election officials in Oregon be elected County Clerks or appointed election managers?”
As an experienced elections administrator, I look at the current elections debacle from a different vantage point, addressing the challenges head-on to prevent future problems.
It is possible to have accurate, timely, and secure elections under either an elected County Clerk or an appointed election manager model. We demonstrate that fact every election in Oregon. We have 27 constitutional counties with elected clerks and nine home rule counties with appointed head election officials. In our more than 20 years of Vote-by-Mail successes, Clerk Hall has been the only county clerk with such an infamous history of errors.
To address the core issue of the recent election debacle, consider several factors which impact election accuracy and timeliness.
In the last 20 years, election administration has dramatically increased in complexity. Expertise in technology, security, and project management has become essential for doing the work. Currently, the only qualifications to run for County Clerk are that you are 18 years old, a resident of the county at least one year prior to the election, and a registered voter.
In contrast, to become the County Sheriff or Assessor you must have specific certifications, education, or training that demonstrates you are minimally qualified to serve in that office. If we want a head elections official that is professional, ethical, and competent, our minimum requirements to hold office must reflect the skills needed to do the job. Certification or training in elections administration from a professional organization or college should be mandatory. Unethical behavior often stems from incompetence and lack of skills, not intentional malfeasance.
Another issue to discuss is the nonpartisan position all county-level elected roles, including County Clerk, are required to take. For our elections to be accessible to all eligible voters, they must be conducted in a true nonpartisan manner. Voters need to be able to exercise the right to vote without hassle, an essential part of functional democracy and the political system. Voters should be able to vote for a County Clerk feeling confident that the candidate will keep personal political and religious views out of the office.
Voters and potential candidates for County Clerk might also examine any advantages incumbents currently have and how this impacts our ability to choose the candidate who will do the job best.
In 2020 new legislation went into effect, directly in response to Clerk Hall’s behavior during the 2018 election cycle when she included her name in large bold print in multiple places on the Voters’ Pamphlet, ballot insert, and ballot return envelope that was mailed to every household and registered voter in the county. This was essentially a tax-payer-funded campaign boost allowing an incumbent an unfair advantage over a challenger. The November 2022 General Election is the first election for Clackamas County Clerk since Senate Bill 670 passed into law which prohibits election officials from putting their names on election materials in elections when they appear as candidates on the ballot. This is a good step forward.
At the end of the day, the voters of Clackamas County choose their head election official. The decision to move to home rule, for example, is a decision that must be approved by voters. In 1995 Clackamas County citizens voted down a home rule charter proposal. Home rule would ultimately mean that the elections manager would report to the Board of Commissioners who could fire them if necessary. While it seems like waiting for an election to remove an incompetent or unethical clerk is a long time, we need to weigh whether there is greater accountability to the voters with the Board of Commissioners as the authority, or directly at the ballot box.
It is the voter’s right and a duty to elect the top local County Clerk and hold them accountable by checking their qualifications and track record before you vote. I ask Clackamas County voters to carefully select their next County Clerk. Read the candidate statements in the voters’ pamphlet, do some brief research on the internet and in the newspaper, and ask their trusted family and friends. Then make sure to make a choice in that contest. The ability to have secure, accurate, transparent, and accessible elections rests in that informed decision.