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Clackamas debacle isn’t election system’s fault

Oregon’s May 17 primary election went off without a hitch — except in Clackamas County, where a printing error and the county clerk’s incompetent response has delayed the counting of tens of thousands of ballots and left a high-profile race hanging in the balance. Some voters have claimed that Oregon’s reliance on vote-counting machines is at fault and demanded the state move to a system of hand-counting all ballots. This is nonsense.

The problem in Clackamas County surfaced on May 3 — two weeks before Election Day — when ballot counting machines began rejecting about two-thirds of completed ballots because bar codes printed on the ballots were blurred. This meant that those ballots needed to be duplicated by hand so they could be processed by the tallying machines.

So the problem originated with the Bend company that printed the ballots. But County Clerk Sherry Hall was slow to respond to the crisis. She failed to assign enough people to the massive task, and then declined offers of help from the Clackamas County commissioners and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Under pressure, she has since ramped up the effort and has pledged to complete the task by the statutory deadline of June 13.

Local residents observing this situation from afar will recognize the name of Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who served as interim city manager of Talent for six months last year. McLeod-Skinner appears to have unseated Rep. Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary in the 5th Congressional District, but the final result won’t be known until all the Clackamas County votes are counted.

The congressional race is not the only one left hanging.

The Oregonian called for Hall to resign in an editorial. Fagan has been sharply critical of the clerk, who was first elected in 2003. Hall faces a challenger in November who has hammered her for the election debacle.

All of this should make it clear that the election tallying machines used in Clackamas County and across the state are not the problem. This situation is the result of human failure — first by the printing shop that apparently missed a quality-control check, then by Hall.

Contrary to the claims of election-fraud conspiracy theorists that the counting machines are somehow suspect, they worked as designed. The machines properly rejected ballots that could not be verified as genuine because they lacked legible bar codes.

Calls from election skeptics to hand-count all ballots across the country are ludicrous. Hand-counting millions of ballots would take months and require the expense of hiring many more election workers. Voting security experts say such a system would make errors more likely, not less.

Oregon’s vote-by-mail system provides fast, accurate machine tallies of paper ballots, and results can then be audited if there is any question about the outcome. The counting machines cannot be hacked from outside because they are not connected to the internet.

The unfortunate situation in Clackamas County is not evidence that the system is flawed. On the contrary, it shows how well it works — when human error doesn’t get in the way.