Election officials: worker altered two ballots

Election officials: worker altered two ballots »Play Video
Officials meet Monday morning in Oregon City. (KATU image)

Update: Temporary Clackamas County Elections worker, Deanna Swenson, has been relieved of duty in connection with this case of alleged ballot tampering, according to Clackamas County.

OREGON CITY, Ore. - Officials in Clackamas County met Monday after investigators said a temporary employee was found to have tampered with election ballots during the counting process last week.

An initial investigation indicates two ballots were changed by the worker on October 31, but officials are reviewing all the ballots the female worker handled. The two ballots affected will not be counted, commissioners said the Department of Justice told them.

Investigators did not say how many ballots the woman handled or how long she had been working with the elections office. She has hot been identified.

 "The essence of democracy is the sanctity of your ballot," Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan with Clackamas County said as the meeting got under way just after 9 a.m. Monday.

A statement about the incident was issued after the meeting ended.  "County citizens should feel assured that any ballots cast from this point forward will be treated properly. Safeguards are in place to ensure a fair, accurate and transparent process for tomorrow’s election," the statement read in part. Read the full statement

Those safeguards include switching to fluorescent pens for election workers since that type of ink cannot be read by the automated ballot processing machines. Also, Oregon State Police troopers are on hand for additional security, the statement said.

During the meeting, officials said a pencil was used to mark the ballots while they were being processed.

"Officials from the Secretary of State's office have been on-site to supervise the ballot counting process," the message read.

"Hopefully this is an isolated incident, and doesn’t extend any further but we don’t know that until they complete the investigation and that could take much longer," Lehan added.

During the hour-long meeting, a county official said they were told by the Department of Justice that the changed ballots would be tossed out.

On Friday, Sherry Hall, the Clackamas County Clerk, told KATU.com that there's no way to know which voter or voters are affected because the ballots are secret; however, she said the tampering was obvious.

That means voters who had ballots tampered with will not being able to cast new votes.

Officials at the meeting stressed that security practices used during the counting of ballots discovered the abnormalities and quick action was taken in removing the worker and reporting the incident.

During the counting process, each ballot is marked with a barcode that links it back to a “table” of 3-person teams.  Team members are supposed to watch one another during the counting process.  Ballots that for whatever reason cannot be read by an automated system are tabulated by hand.

Lehan said that about 30 percent of ballots have yet to be cast in the county. Lehan said she did not know if the person accused of tampering with the ballots has been arrested or what her name is.

Officials at the meeting said there was no video coverage of the area where the incident took place due to current observation protocols but a video system would now be under consideration.

"You have cameras over every 7-Eleven, surely we can have cameras on the ballot counting process," Lehan said. "If irregularities come up, we can go back and check."

Sherry Hall, who oversees the ballot counting, did not attend the emergency meeting on Monday.

Clackamas County Administrator Steve Wheeler said Hall decided not to attend because of her participation in the investigation.

Hall issued a statement outlining the incident and her reason for not attending the meeting. In her statement, she said she is working with investigators and said she was releasing no information about the person at the center of the incident while the investigation was in progress.

Hall also said her office handled the incident correctly. But Commissioner Ann Lininger was unhappy that Hall did not attend the meeting.

"I’m disappointed she did not choose to come to an important meeting where where we were trying to advise and inform the public on what steps have been taken to make sure the election is going to operate in a safe and secure way going forward," Lininger said. "I think that’s an unfortunate choice."

County Commissioner Jim Bernard said he wants the woman's name to be released.

The Willamette Week newspaper reported the election worker filled in Republican bubbles on ballots where preferences had been left empty by voters in the county, which primarily comprises Portland suburbs.

About 95,500 of the county's 228,000 registered voters had returned their ballots as of last Thursday.

"Without additional information about existing safeguards and about the employee in question, it will be difficult for citizens to have faith in the process," Lehan said. "If people lose faith in the process, they may simply choose not to vote."

Clackamas County is home to 10 percent of Oregon's registered voters, and is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Clackamas County is considered a swing county that is pivotal in deciding close statewide races. Three neck-and-neck legislative races could be decisive in determining which party controls the state House.   

A Clackamas County Senate race was decided by 227 votes in 2010, and another in southern Oregon by 275 votes.

In 2010, a race was put on the Clackamas County primary ballot that was not due to be voted on until November. All of the ballots had to be reprinted at a cost of $120,000.

Statement from Clackamas County officials issued after the meeting:

The Board of County Commissioners learned Nov. 2 of a reported incident of ballot tampering in the Clackamas County elections office that occurred Oct. 31. A temporary employee was allegedly observed filling in blank spaces on a ballot.

The incident was reported to the Secretary of State who sought the involvement of the Oregon Department of Justice.  The matter is currently under investigation by both the Secretary of State and the Department of Justice. The temporary worker involved in the incident is no longer working pending the outcome of the investigation. 

At this point, it is unclear how many ballots the employee at issue had access to, or what will be done with those ballots.  Ballot envelopes are opened at a table with observers registered with both major political parties, and the room has a space for the public to observe the process.

Since the incident was reported, officials from the Secretary of State's office have been on-site to supervise the ballot counting process, and Oregon State Troopers are providing additional security. Elections workers now work with fluorescent pens, which cannot be read by the counting machines. 

County citizens should feel assured that any ballots cast from this point forward will be treated properly. Safeguards are in place to ensure a fair, accurate and transparent process for tomorrow’s election.

While the election process is under the sole control of the County Clerk, with the supervision of the Secretary of State, the Board of Commissioners is committed to working with the County Clerk and other officials to support any improvements to enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.