Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Misprinted Ballots Aren’t Sherry Hall’s First Election Mishap

Oregon’s Clackamas County Clerk did not react quickly to the news of a printing error on thousands of ballots just a week before the primary election. But this year’s error is just one of many for the clerk.

(TNS) — The news reached Clackamas County, Ore., Clerk Sherry Hall more than a week before the May election: An error had marred ballots and would likely delay some results.

Hall, however, decided not to move quickly to remedy the snag.

“I didn’t realize what impact this would have,” she said the day after the primary. “I definitely should have called the secretary of state’s office when I first learned of the problem.”

Those remarks, all but absent of remorse, did not come in the wake of last month’s disastrous ballot-handling by Hall, but after her first major blunder as the county’s top elections official nearly 20 years ago.

Many similar non-apologies from the clerk would follow as other election mishaps publicly piled up.

The latest: Blurred barcodes on most of the county’s ballots, and Hall’s failure to mount an all-hands-on-deck response, meant results of key races in this year’s May 17 primary were delayed for two weeks, undermining voter confidence in elections integrity in Oregon’s third most-populous county.

Long before former President Donald Trump’s and his followers’ false claims about a stolen 2020 election thrust suspicion about local vote counts into the national spotlight, Hall presided over a mounting tally of election errors spanning her two decades as Clackamas’s elected clerk.

Botched ballots, an invalidated local election and a state vote-tampering investigation have all raised questions about her competence and leadership —as well the elections she’s overseen.

Former employees say her erratic management style resulted in an office that was at times dysfunctional. And though she’s strongly opposed politicizing the nonpartisan clerk’s office, Hall, a registered Republican, has faced ongoing accusations of doing precisely that.

Still, she’s repeatedly won reelection to the job that currently pays $112,000 a year. Political observers attribute that feat largely to the power of incumbency in the low-profile position and Hall’s tenacious grassroots politicking. Over and over, opponents have pointed out what they see as her professional failures — and lost.

That could change as Hall seeks a sixth four-year term this fall, only months after being at the center of the largest election debacle in Oregon history.

Two weeks before the deadline for May’s primary, Hall and her staff discovered that tens of thousands of ballots had been damaged by the barcode printing error and decided that each would need to be duplicated by hand to be properly counted.

The clerk subsequently rejected repeated offers by local and state leaders to provide assistance for the monumental task and failed to come up with a plan to tally the votes in a timely fashion.

“It’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to Clackamas County in quite some time,” said Jack Hammond, a resident long active in civic affairs. “It’s certainly cast quite the pall over us.”

Hall’s perplexing decisions caused delays that upended some of the state’s most closely-watched races and sullied Oregon’s pioneering vote-by-mail system as the ongoing gaffe attracted national headlines. A similar hand-duplicating process conducted in a Pennsylvania county, meanwhile, took less than two days after the election to complete.

Thanks to an influx of county employees pulled from their regular work to bail Hall out of a public relations disaster, the county elections office finished hand-copying and counting most ballots by the end of the day last Monday. That was 10 days later than the rest of Oregon counties wrapped up their tallies.

“Let’s be frank, the missteps by Clackamas County in this instance, they’re going to be a setback,” Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan recently told the news program “Think Out Loud.” “You can’t have weeks of negative headlines about an election without eroding trust.”

The ballot fiasco also provided many voters with their first real glimpse of Hall, who has remained in the hot seat.

In emergency public meetings and news conferences, she struggled to articulate a rationale for why she refused county and state offers of help before the election, dodged or declined to answer numerous questions and at times appeared perplexed or confused.

“I didn’t respond to this with the urgency that I should have, and I realize that,” Hall finally conceded days after the election. “This is where we are, and I can’t change that.”

Hall, now 70, declined to speak with The Oregonian/OregonLive for this story.

“I have nothing to add,” she said.

‘Keep Them Guessing’

State and local officials were powerless to intervene as Hall frittered away opportunities to accelerate ballot-counting and build public confidence. Clackamas is the largest of the 29 Oregon counties that still have an elected clerk.

In others, including Multnomah and Washington counties, voters long ago enacted home rule charters and made the position an administrative one, resulting in professionally trained elections chiefs who answer to county commissioners.

A home rule charter amendment placed before Clackamas County voters in 1996 failed by less than 1,500 votes, records show.

In 2002, Hall, then already a longtime county government employee, ran for clerk and won. In addition to administering elections, the office — with a staff of 19 and an annual budget last fiscal year of about $4.6 million — oversees recording property transactions, keeping public records and issuing marriage licenses.

Five former clerk’s office employees who spoke with The Oregonian/OregonLive described Hall as an official who lacked an interest in or a basic grasp of the details of running elections and didn’t look favorably upon those who appeared to know more than she did.

During her tenure, the office has cycled through seven elections managers, including five between 2005 and 2010.

Steven Kindred, who served in the role between 2010 and 2017, said he had little to praise about his former boss other than the chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies she bakes and hands out to those working on election nights.

In a recent interview, Kindred recalled what he said was the only piece of work advice he received from Hall during his seven-year stint.

“‘Always keep them guessing,’” he said she advised him. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s some of the worst management philosophy I’ve ever heard.’”

Errors Abound

The first of Hall’s known election mishaps occurred less than two years into her tenure. In 2004, her office mailed hundreds of ballots to Sandy residents that excluded a series of land annexation questions — an error she later admitted she knew of 10 days before the election but never publicly disclosed.

A judge subsequently invalidated one of the annexation votes, requiring the election to be repeated on the taxpayer’s dime.

In 2010, Clackamas County election officials included wrong races on ballots and erroneous information in voter pamphlets on three separate occasions. One of the foul-ups, which placed a county commission race on May’s election ticket instead of November’s, required printing new ballots at a cost of more than $100,000.

Two years later, in November 2012, a temporary elections worker was accused of filling in a few incomplete ballots for Republican candidates. The worker, Deanna Swenson, was charged with ballot tampering and received 90 days in jail.

Throughout more than a dozen documented scandals, gaffes and controversies, Hall rarely showed contrition and could turn confrontational, according to critics and a review of contemporaneous news reports.

“She doesn’t want to take any kind of responsibility or ownership of the problems she creates,” Linda Malone, who served as Sandy’s mayor during the annexation debacle, said in a recent interview.

For example, after the costly ballot reprinting dustup of 2010, Hall filed a complaint with state elections officials. It claimed the episode, including press “leaks” and public criticisms of her by county officials, kept her from winning the primary outright and forced her into a November runoff.

During that time, Hall hired attorney William Cloran to serve as outside counsel in her role as elected county clerk. She has retained him ever since, which the county says costs about $30,000 annually.

Election errors continued apace. In 2013, Hall’s office misprinted the date of the election in the Voter Pamphlet for a Wilsonville special election – her office’s fifth acknowledged blunder in as many years.

“We aim for perfection but don’t always get there,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time.

When Hall in 2016 revealed her office had discovered a box of 341 uncounted ballots a month after the general election, she offered a rare public apology.

“I am sorry that this error occurred,” she said. The amended final election tallies did not impact the outcome of any contested races, according to Hall.

Multiple people who’ve worked under Hall say she often failed to fully grasp the gravity of the mistakes that occurred on her watch.

“I don’t think she generally understands how discrediting or embarrassing all of this is,” said Barbara Stringham, who retired from the clerk’s office in 2018 after 17 years and unsuccessfully ran against Hall for clerk in 2010.

Competency Questioned

Kindred, the former elections manager, said he often questioned Hall’s ethics and competency during his time in her office.

In 2014, he said, Hall called him during office hours to ask for help answering several questions. Hall did not tell Kindred they were for an Oregonian/OregonLive candidate questionnaire that the news organization later published, he said. She was subsequently fined $100 by election officials.

Shortly before he retired, Kindred said, Hall gave an interview to a reporter about the signature verification process so full of factual errors that the clerk’s office needed to publish a detailed response to the article, which was riddled with numerous inaccuracies.

“By the time I left she’d been there 15 years and she still didn’t understand how things worked,” he said. “I think Sherry likes being an elected official. As for being a county clerk? Not so much.”

A graduate of Rex Putnam High in Milwaukie, Hall attended Eastern Oregon University but did not earn a degree. She worked in the Clackamas County clerk’s office for several years before she was fired, a decision later determined to be a wrongful termination. The county reassigned her to the district attorney’s office, where she remained until she ran for public office.

Hall’s Christian faith is a big part of her life. For years she attended Portland’s Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, which has a predominately African American congregation. The North Portland church is about a 30-minute drive from her home in Gladstone.

“It has more diversity than where I live, and I feel very welcomed here,” Hall told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a 2007 story about Black History Month. “Our lives are so enriched by interacting and building relationships with people who are different than us.”

Yet her religious and political convictions have also been seen as inappropriately influencing her in public office, despite her persistent campaign pledge over the years to keep them out.

Since Oregon legalized gay marriage in 2014, Hall has refused to conduct marriage ceremonies of any kind. That same year, ballots sent out in Clackamas County referred to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat Party,” an epithet long used by right-wing groups to denounce their political opponents.

Hall’s Facebook account follows the “Donald Trump Is My President” page as well as a number of right-wing media celebrities such as Jesse Watters, Jeanine Pirro and Bill O’Reilly. Records show she made 10 campaign contributions to national Republican causes in 2020 totaling over $500.

In the runup to that year’s election, Hall would routinely turn on a television in her office to follow Fox News. The volume was so loud at times that it could be heard in other parts of the office even when her door was closed, one former employee said.

“I watched this on my lunch on occasion when breaking news was happening,” Hall said through a county spokesperson this week.

Partisan politics often found their way into the office, said Connie Brown, who worked for the county clerk between 2005 and 2020. In an interview she recalled how in 2018, a year in which the clerk was seeking reelection, a woman wearing a “Hall for Clerk” t-shirt was permitted to be inside, directly violating the office’s prohibition against electioneering.

“I can tell you if someone tried to come in with a ‘Biden for President’ t-shirt, they would have never made it through the front door,” Brown said.

During that same election, Hall was accused of self-promotion by having her name appear four times on ballot materials as she was running for a fifth term in office. The criticism prompted state lawmakers to pass a bill the next year prohibiting clerks from placing their name on such materials during elections in which they are a candidate.

Weathering Storms

Meanwhile, Hall is seeking a sixth term as Clackamas County clerk this fall.

Political observers, campaign consultants and elected officeholders in the county attribute a portion of Hall’s previous successes to the county’s ideological leanings, which have traditionally skewed conservative, as well as her willingness to spend time gladhanding in its many small communities over the years.

And while Hall’s repeated blunders earned headlines and harsh words from critics, they largely failed to make waves with voters.

“Even with all the missteps, I don’t think the average Clackamas resident is aware of them,” said Jake Weigler, a political consultant who has worked on numerous races in the county.

Perhaps most important, observers say, is the fact that nonpartisan, down-ballot races such as county clerk traditionally attract little interest from voters, providing a substantial advantage for the incumbent officeholder.

In 2018, Hall’s last reelection, more than 52,000 voters skipped marking the county clerk’s race altogether. Her opponent, Pamela White, lost by about 6,000 votes out of 150,000 cast in the contest, even though she campaigned for two years and reported raising and spending more than $100,000.

Hall, by contrast, reported raising and spending no money for her campaign that year and hasn’t since 2010, campaign finance records show.

“She’s weathered her storms partly because you’re only going to get the diehards going all the way down ballot,” said Malone, the former mayor of Sandy.

Come this November, though, those diehards may favor Hall’s opponent Catherine McMullen, a program specialist for Multnomah County elections.

Bill Kennemer, a Republican state senator and former Clackamas County commissioner who publicly endorsed Hall’s first run for office 20 years ago, said an electorate now primed with concerns about election integrity coupled with the scale of last month’s ballot blunder could spell trouble for the incumbent.

“Sherry’s previous mistakes have not been of this caliber,” Kennemer said. “The political climate has also changed dramatically since a president began claiming the election was stolen from him.”

Asked whether he planned to vote for Hall again, Kennemer demurred.

“Let me state it a different way,” he said. “Given all the public attention this has drawn, I think it’s unlikely she will be successful.”

Hall, meanwhile, has remained circumspect about her political prospects.

“It’s not something I really think about. Lots of things affect lots of things,” she told reporters the day after the May primary. “We’ll just see what happens.”

“I like the job a lot. I hate the politics part of it,” she continued. “It’s very honorable work because your voice to government is on the ballot and it’s very important to keep the highest integrity possible. Which is what I’m striving to do.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
From Our Partners