Vote tallies sometimes were slow in arriving

County officials struggled to finish their tabulation of election results on schedule

On Friday afternoon, House District 39 candidate Bill Kennemer was still hesitant to accept victory in a closely contested race.

Kennemer's victory was close - but not that close. The real reason candidates were sweating it out was more a product of the vote counting than the final tally. Results in Clackamas County and other counties across the state came in agonizingly slow.

Updates were rare on Election night, and at 10 a.m. Nov. 5, Clackamas County elections officials said they had about 60,000 votes left to count - that's roughly one-third of all ballots. They planned to wrap up at the end of the day with the exception of ballots turned in to other counties, but by 3 p.m., they had only counted another 2,500 ballots. At 11 a.m. last Thursday they whittled that number down to 10,000, finally finishing around 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

To make matters worse, some election observers reported that they had trouble getting into county facilities.

In light of the increasing instances of voting problems in this country over the past eight years, it's critical that we keep our election process efficient and concise. Each county has 20 days to certify the results of an election. While it may take a week or two to make vote counts official, election departments should not take their 20-day allowance as a cue to take their time counting the public's vote.

Lake Oswego situation no different

The slow-to-count woes were evident in Lake Oswego's city council race. While it was clear by Nov. 5 that Sally Moncrieff and Mary Olson had won two of the three open seats on the council, it was not until after another day of counting that the third spot was filled. In a close race for the final position, Bill Tierney edged out Jeff Gudman.

As the counting got under way Nov. 4 it was unclear whether Tierney would hold his slim early lead over Gudman, with only a couple hundred votes separating the two Lake Oswego residents. But Tierney's lead gradually increased by last Thursday afternoon when the bulk of the ballots finally were counted.

While some ballots - specifically those sent to other counties - remained to be tabulated, there are not enough outstanding ballots to change the outcome.

Tough election year

Clackamas wasn't the only county to experience vote-counting issues. Anyone following the results of the Jeff Merkley and Gordon Smith U.S. Senate race knows that results from Multnomah and other counties trickled in slowly.

Counties faced challenges this year. There was a large, 17-inch ballot due to an excess of ballot measures, and Oregon saw high voter turnout. Clackamas County saw 30,000 of its ballots come in on the final day. In contrast, ballots received earlier can be sorted and the folds in the ballot can be smoothed out so it can be accepted by the vote-counting machines. County Clerk Sherry Hall said election workers faced greater instances of voters altering their ballot in a way that would force the machines to reject it, in part due to more first-time voters.

Hall said there was also some confusion as to where election observers should go in the new facility. They had been located in cramped quarters in Gladstone before moving to their more spacious digs in Oregon City.

Success elsewhere

Despite the challenges, not everyone suffered from such problems. Washington County had the majority of its votes counted by 6 a.m. Nov. 5. After watching the problems posed by the 17-inch ballot in 2006, Washington County Elections Manager Mickie Kawai said she decided to rent two extra vote-counting machines, putting seven machines at her disposal to Clackamas County's five.

Those machine rentals come at a price - $22,000 to be exact. So the question remains, is the cost worth it once every four years?

It's an interesting question. On one hand, $22,000 is a serious chunk of change for the one-time use of a counting machine. On the other hand, it's a negligible portion of the county budget that would only be necessary during presidential elections. This year, it's likely that the only people hitting their Internet browser's refresh button on the county's elections page were journalists and politicians. There were only a few races still in question by last Thursday.

But what if, four years from now, a bigger and more closely contested race hinges on the results in Clackamas County? During the past eight years, we've watched citizens feel that their vote has been minimized due to ballot-counting problems and irregularities in places like Ohio and Florida. Do we want that kind of debacle to come to Clackamas County? Is it worth $22,000 to avoid it?

We suspect that the answer - particularly if politicians in Clackamas County have any say in it - is yes.

Compounding this are the population projections for the area, which suggest there will be more and more of us voting.

Earlier this year, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners discussed completing a performance audit of the Elections Division, which it does with other departments. In light of this year's problems, such an audit is necessary. It's imperative that the department get an outside look at its strengths and weaknesses to determine how it can better serve the public.

Because with or without those two extra machines, a repeat performance of last week's vote counting is unacceptable.