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Clackamas County election fiasco exposes problems only voters can fix
County clerk races usually receive little attention from voters despite their immense responsibilities, and that needs to change starting with the November general election
County clerks are the guardians of democracy. They are the people, whether elected or appointed, whose duty is to ensure every registered voter has a chance to vote and every vote is counted, then certify the winner with the most votes. It is the duty of voters to protect their democratic privilege by ensuring their county clerk is fair, committed and competent.
The simplest cure to end the serial flubs of Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall is to vote her out of office in November. However, only Clackamas County voters can do that by voting for her opponent, Catherine McMullen. The rest of us can only shake our heads and hope Hall’s checkered track record doesn’t add to the erosion of public trust in elections.
There apparently is no mechanism under Oregon law to remove Hall as an elected county clerk, even for misfeasance. By law, she is the only person who can run an election in Clackamas County. Her continued service rests solely with voters.
Hall, 70, was first elected as the nonpartisan Clackamas County Clerk in 2002. She has been re-elected four times and is running for a sixth term. A succession of election blunders dating back to her first term has marred her tenure.
In early May, Clackamas County received ballots from a Bend printer with blurry bar codes, which meant they couldn’t be tabulated by machine. Hall reportedly declined help from county commissioners and the secretary of state’s elections division to address the problem. So, instead of a smooth process on election night, Hall was forced to use county employees to hand-count ballots with bad bar codes. What should have taken hours took weeks. She barely met the deadline for certifying final election results.
Two highly contested races hung in the balance. Congressman Kurt Schrader’s chance to retain his seat depended on a strong showing in Clackamas County, where he lives, but which didn’t materialize. Schrader saw the writing on the wall and conceded to his primary opponent, Jaime McLeod-Skinner, before all the votes were counted.
That wasn’t the case in the battle for the Democratic nomination in open House District 38 seat, which pitted Lake Oswego School Board member Neelam Gupta against Lake Oswego City Councilor Daniel Nguyen in a redrawn district with almost even numbers of Democratic voters in Clackamas and Multnomah counties. After the Multnomah County votes were counted on election night, Gupta led by 328 votes. When all votes were finally counted, Nguyen won by 28 votes, one vote more than would have required an automatic recount.
In previous elections, Hall failed to catch ballot omissions in 2004, included a county race on a May ballot in 2010 that should have been on a November ballot and accepted invalid signatures in 2011 on a ballot measure petition. In 2012, one of Hall’s employees was caught voting for Republican candidates in races that voters left blank. Hall fired the employee and reported the incident.
Former senior staff members say Hall keeps politics out of the clerk’s office, though she identifies herself on Facebook as a Trump supporter. Former staffers also say she can be inattentive to details and slow to fix problems when they occur. The 2010 ballot mix-up required reprinting all primary election ballots at a taxpayer cost of nearly $120,000.
Politicization of state and local elections officials is becoming more common, especially in light of former President Donald Trump’s insistence the 2020 presidential election, which he lost, was “stolen.” Trump has endorsed a number of state and county election office candidates who parrot his unsubstantiated claims. If elected this year, these pro-Trump men and women will preside over the next presidential election in 2024.
It is tempting to blame elected county clerks for contributing to this politicization. That may not be fair or accurate. Elected county clerks face the entire electorate, not just their partisan counterparts, to win office. In the 2020 election, many elected elections officers upheld their duty.
Appointed election officials may be subject to similar or even greater partisan pressure from county commissions or state legislatures than elected county or city election officials.
A real problem with elected county clerks is where they appear on the ballot. Races for county clerk in Oregon are nonpartisan and don’t get much election hype. Many voters have no idea who is running. Consequently, so-called down-ballot races are left blank by many voters. According to her detractors, Hall has kept her job because of friends and loyal followers despite her official missteps.
In addition to election-related duties, county clerks in Oregon maintain deeds, mortgages, maps, plats, contracts, liens and powers of attorney relating to real property. They also maintain records for county commissions and county courts, keep vital statistics, issue licenses and are empowered to officiate at weddings. The job is unlike a legislator or county commissioner who sets policy. County clerks have to know how to handle sensitive records and manage elections. In her first election campaign, Hall listed her experience as a legal secretary for the Clackamas County District Attorney, serving on a DUII panel and being a member of the Oregon Trail Pageant board.
County clerks also must avoid political favoritism. Hall flunked that test. McLeod-Skinner’s campaign complained that Hall gave preferential access to Schrader to observe vote counting. Hall denied the accusation and gave conflicting explanations for what happened.
Being a county clerk, whether elected or appointed, is a serious, professional responsibility. A person’s skillset should determine their suitability for the job, not their electability or who they know. Favoritism and ineptitude can occur regardless of whether someone is elected or appointed to the job.
A case can be made that electing a county clerk should be a better way to ensure the job is filled by someone who is competent and truly nonpartisan. But that’s only true if voters pay attention all the way down the ballot, take the time to learn who is running and cast their vote for the person they feel is most qualified.
Gary Conkling has been involved in Oregon politics for more than 50 years as a reporter and editor, congressional staffer and public affairs professional.