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GMO labeling, Round 2

A painstaking analysis of 85,349 ballots is under way at the Jackson County Elections Center as part of a mandatory statewide recount of the GMO-labeling initiative.

Temporary workers hired for the job are being closely watched by 18 observers, representing factions supporting and opposing Ballot Measure 92.

“Normally, we have some observers but not this many,” said Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker.

According to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, the “no” votes in Oregon total 753,478 and the “yes” votes 752,666, a difference of 812 out of more than 1.5 million cast. Because of the slight difference, the secretary of state is required to declare a recount.

Measure 92 was heavily favored, 46,405 to 37,617, in Jackson County, where voters earlier in the year approved a GMO crop ban. Out of 36 counties in the state, a majority of voters in seven more-populated counties voted for the initiative.

The ballot measure would require that food products be labeled to show whether they contained genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

During the recount, two observers monitor each of the nine tables at the Jackson County Elections Center. At each table, four workers pull ballots out of boxes and sort them into “yes” and “no” piles. Once the workers, who receive minimum wage, finish counting a precinct, their tally is compared with the machine count. If there is a discrepancy, the workers go through a reconciliation process.

Determining voter intent is a key part of the job. On one ballot, a voter filled in the bubbles fairly thoroughly for every other candidate or issue, but only made a slight dot on the “no” bubble for the GMO labeling initiative. The four counters, representing Democrats, Republicans and independents, determined it was an undervote, or lack of a vote on the measure. The number of undervotes counted by a machine were 1,324 in Jackson County.

The recount in Jackson County is expected to finish by Friday.

With so much paperwork and so many eyes focused on the workers, it turned out it wasn’t a job for everyone.

“We had two people say they didn’t want to do this,” Walker said. “It’s too overwhelming for them.”

The observers were also watching Walker as well.

“We’re just looking for anomalies, or for Chris Walker to make a mistake,” said Sandra Abercrombie, who is overseeing the No on 92 observers. So far, she said, she hadn’t seen anything unusual.

“Chris Walker is doing an outstanding job,” she said. “She thinks it all through.”

Kevin Glenn, spokesman for the Yes on 92 campaign, said his side still has confidence that the recount will help pick up extra votes.

“The machines are great at what they do, but they have a margin of error,” he said.

In some cases, a voter may have filled in both the “yes” and the “no” bubbles, then circled the “yes” bubble after realizing the mistake, he said.

Observers, some of whom appeared to be getting sleepy as they sat for hours, are not allowed to talk to any of the workers involved in the recount. The county clerk and other election officials carefully monitored the activities throughout the day Tuesday.

Walker said it's difficult for the observers because they have to remain seated while the workers go through the ballots.

“It’s like watching paint dry,” she said.

Still, Walker invited anyone in to observe the proceedings, explaining what is going on to the outside observers and the media.

“We want it to be a transparent process,” Walker said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

From left, ballot counters Sandra Doss, Marjorie Runia, Carol Chappell and Anne Vandenberg recount Jackson County votes under the watchful eyes of observers from each side of the GMO issue Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Four workers at each of nine tables pull ballots out of boxes and sort them into “yes” and “no” piles as observers keep watch. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell