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Former elections worker pleads guilty to ballot tampering, gets 90 days

Former elections worker pleads guilty to ballot tampering, gets 90 days
Deanna Swenson appears in court on April 25, 2013. KATU photo.

PORTLAND, Ore. - A former Clackamas County elections employee accused of ballot tampering pleaded guilty on Thursday and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Deanna Swenson of Oregon City was arrested last fall after another election worker saw her filling in ovals on ballots where preferences had been left empty by voters.

A plea deal was reached in which Swenson would admit to tampering with two ballots and be required to serve 90 days in jail, pay over $13,000 in fines and perform community service.

Swenson told reporters after her arrest that her thinking had been affected by an illness and the use of a prescription drug. Her attorney, Jason Short, had initially considered a defense that would take into account Swenson's mental state at the time she altered the ballots.

"We still believe that her sickness combined with medications - her being very sick at the time - did have an impact with regards to her cognitive thinking," Short said. "But in the end, the evidence was too much there for us to risk a chance of going to trial and being convicted of more counts and running the risk of a lengthier sentence."

The misconduct happened less than a week before the general election, creating concern that the legitimacy of some results would be questioned. The tampering, however, apparently did not affect any races. All of the suspect ballots were reviewed to identify voter intent - or, in this case, lack of intent - and then counted.

Oregon was the first state to conduct elections exclusively by mail, and the November election marked the fourth presidential contest in which the system was used. Never before had an election worker been accused of such conduct.

Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall released the following statement following Swenson's guilty plea:

"I have not made a statement until today at the request of the Oregon Department of Justice and out of a desire to see the legal process through to its conclusion."

"I am happy this case has finally come to a resolution. It's disappointing that one of our employees committed this act which compromises the public trust.    It was an isolated incident and one that does not reflect on the professionalism and dedication of the many workers and staff who contribute to elections in Clackamas County."

"Although this was a difficult situation, I am proud of the way it was handled and the quick and decisive action that followed the discovery.  We are constantly working to ensure the integrity of our ballot processing systems."

"While our ballot security plan (like those in other Oregon counties) is not public record, the voters of Clackamas County can be assured that steps are being taken and oversight procedures are being implemented to keep the ballot security system in Clackamas County strong."

We spoke with Oregon's Secretary of State, Kate Brown, to find out what elections officials are doing to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Brown said Oregon still has one of the most secure voting processes in the country. They verify every signature on every ballot and cross check voter registration databases.

But there will be one big change coming - more cameras. Brown said she wants cameras in "every nook and cranny of elections offices." She said there is already the money for it - no additional taxpayer dollars needed.

But how about making sure the volunteers they hire will not mishandle our votes?

"The county clerks run the elections process and it's my understanding that Clackamas County is reviewing their processes, yes," Brown said.

Ballot security processes are not public records but we did speak with the Clackamas County clerk over the phone and she confirmed there is a thorough review of elections offices and processes going on.

But she also questioned how much more vetting elections can do. She said she can't even ask about a person's political party before hiring them on.

Both she and the Secretary of State were adamant that the system works because Swenson was with other volunteers while handling ballots and was caught.