Ballot-tampering allegations come on eve of election

Clackamas County Elections Office Manager Steve Kindred immediately “relieved” a worker of her post after she was “detected manipulating” a ballot last week, said County Attorney Stephen Madkour.

Oregon State Police monitor the office all hours of the day, but it was still only a rumor on Monday that more than one ballot with blank spaces was allegedly filled in for Republican candidates. There were originally two “highly suspect” ballots. However, that number grew to six ballots by late Tuesday afternoon.

“To date, Clackamas County, under supervision of my elections monitors, has identified six ballots that were potentially altered by the accused temporary county elections employee. The total number of ballots potentially affected is still under investigation by the Department of Justice,” Secretary of State Kate Brown said.

Clackamas County commissioners discussed these facts on the eve of this week’s election in an apparent attempt to restore confidence in the democratic process. Saying she was “extremely concerned” about the allegations of ballot tampering, County Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan called the emergency meeting on Nov. 5 to provide information about the “potential extent of the problem.”

Clackamas County spokesman Tim Heider reported Monday afternoon that Deanna Swenson was “relieved of duty” immediately after the allegations of fraud surfaced Oct. 31. Swenson worked part time in the elections division, but was not a county employee, Heider confirmed.

Lehan largely kept the Nov. 5 emergency discussion away from the ongoing criminal investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice and expressed a “high level of confidence” in its work. There was no representative from the Elections Office at the meeting, although Madkour said “the system works” and safeguards were in place.”

We want people to get those ballots out and not be discouraged,” Lehan said.

In a written statement to the commission, County Clerk Sherry Hall said any ballot tampering would be “inexcusable,” but she wouldn’t be releasing any information about the elections worker.

Lehan was also concerned that the Elections Office called the West Linn Police Department on Nov. 2 to stop campaign volunteers from collecting ballots in the area. Lehan had asked a list of 19 questions to provide more details about the alleged election fraud, but officials weren’t able to answer all of them.

County Attorney Scot Sideras added that the Elections Office wouldn’t begin to count the ballots until election night, so there would be time to identify other irregularities.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office has set up monitors of the process that has elections workers with writing implements to log the ballots manually. Sideras said that, given the nature of the allegations, the Elections Office may set up an “airport-style” security system to prevent election workers from bringing in their own pens or pencils in briefcases or purses.

“This is the first time such an incident has occurred,” Sideras said. “We always thought that people would be watching each other ... it never occurred to us that we needed a third level of protection.”Elections workers now work with fluorescent pens, which cannot be read by the counting machines.

For the potentially altered ballots, election officials will try to determine the original voter’s intent. If that can be established, then the ballot will be counted to reflect what the voter marked, according to Brown.

Groups ‘concerned’

Secretary of State Kate Brown announced Sunday that she is expanding the team overseeing the processing of ballots for the general election in Clackamas County. Brown said she is sending Brenda Bayes, the deputy director for elections in Oregon, to serve as an elections monitor.

Bayes will join Fred Neal, a retired state elections official, whom Brown had previously sent to Clackamas County.

According to Brown, a private security guard and state trooper assigned to oversee access to the elections building are also working under her direction.

“Voters and Clackamas County elections officials need to know that we are keeping a very close eye on the processing of ballots,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “The team I have in place, together with the investigators from the Oregon Department of Justice, are working to ensure the integrity, transparency and accountability of this election in Clackamas County.”

The justice department has launched a criminal investigation into an allegation that a temporary Clackamas County elections worker tampered with six or more ballots, reportedly to favor Republicans. No charges have been filed. The allegation was received by Brown’s office on Oct. 31. She referred it to the justice department, which initiated the investigation.

House Democrats last week expressed alarm at the election fraud case, citing key races in Clackamas County. Republicans Patrick Sheehan and Julie Parrish face strong challenges, while Steve Newgard and Brent Barton are vying to fill an open seat in Gladstone and Oregon City.

With the Oregon Legislature divided evenly 30-30, each race could shift the balance of power in the chamber.

Days before the election, the alleged felony violations of Oregon’s elections laws involved a temporary county elections employee tampering with cast ballots, said Jeff Manning, spokesman for the Department of Justice.

“We’re throwing a lot resources at this, and this is a high priority for us,” Manning said.

Lehan’s campaign is considering legal action because of the rumored partisan nature of the allegations. Lehan is concerned that a large percentage of people who voted for neither candidate in commission races before mailing in their ballots ended up counting for her opponent, John Ludlow.

“It throws the entire election result in doubt at this point,” said Chris Edmonds, campaign manager for Lehan. “We don’t know whether this was part of a larger and more coordinated effort in the elections office.”

On Oct. 31, Manning said the investigation kicked into high gear. Clackamas County Elections itself, which Manning said is cooperating with the investigation, alerted the Secretary of State’s Office, and the state’s Election Division turned it over to the DOJ.

“Criminal investigations take time, they’re painstaking and they’re usually not cleared up in a few days,” Manning said.

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