OREGON CITY, Ore. (AP) — With the election heading into its final hours, the extent to which a Clackamas County election worker possibly tampered with ballots remains a mystery, potentially casting doubt on the legitimacy of the outcomes in close races.
The temporary employee, identified Monday as Deanna Swenson, 55, of Oregon City, reportedly filled in Republican ovals on ballots where preferences had been left empty by voters. The misconduct was seen and reported Wednesday afternoon, triggering a criminal investigation by the state Department of Justice.
Swenson, who did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, hasn’t been charged. Tim Heider, a county spokesman, said Swenson has worked for the county in prior elections, but he could not say for how many.
A county lawyer, Scot Sideras, said two ballots are highly suspect, and state investigators are looking through other ballots Swenson handled to see if the tampering was more widespread. He said the suspect ballots are evidence and will not be released in time to be counted for Tuesday’s election.
County Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan, a Democrat in a heated race with Republican John Ludlow, convened an emergency meeting Monday. She received few answers as County Clerk Sherry Hall declined an invitation to appear. Hall released a statement in which she said she can’t discuss an open police investigation.
“It may turn out it was one or two ballots, it may turn out it was more,” Lehan said.
Jeff Manning, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said it’s early in the investigation and authorities aren’t prepared to release details.
Oregon was the first state to conduct elections exclusively by mail, and this the fourth presidential election in which the system has been used. This is believed to be the first incident in which an election worker has been seen marking choices.
County Counsel Stephen Madkour said the worker allegedly used a pencil she had carried in her purse to fill-in the blanks left by a voter who used pen. He told commissioners there is no video available.
Clackamas County, home to 10 percent of Oregon’s registered voters, is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and is 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.
It’s common for voters to skip local and lower-profile races. In 2008, for example, fewer than 2,000 of the 193,688 ballots cast in Clackamas County left the Barack Obama-John McCain matchup blank. The number increased to 8,500 for the U.S. Senate race, 20,000 for the state treasurer’s race and more than 30,000 in state House races.
County lawyers told commissioners at the meeting that ballot envelopes are processed at tables in which there are three people — a captain and two workers who do not belong to the same party. The workers have pens to log barcode numbers and to fill-in duplicate ballots in case a coffee stain or other problem prevents a ballot from being read by the counting machine.
Because of Wednesday’s alleged misconduct, election workers are primarily using fluorescent green-and-yellow pens that cannot be read by machines.
The exception is when a duplicate ballot is filled out. In that case, a “carefully controlled” pen is used, Sideras said.
To further enhance security, two officials from the Secretary of State’s office are on-site to monitor the count and an Oregon state trooper is there.
Ludlow accused Lehan of “posturing” on the issue by holding an emergency meeting. He said the system worked as it should, with the employee removed and the authorities alerted immediately after the misconduct was witnessed.
“I believe this is more about my opponent being behind in the polls and doing everything in her power to get attention,” he said.
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