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Oregon elections director fired after he details problems

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon's elections director was abruptly fired in a text message by the secretary of state after he pointed out serious issues with the state's aging and vulnerable technology for running elections.

Elections Director Stephen Trout learned in a text message Thursday night — as his department and county elections officials were still counting votes from the Nov. 3 election — that he was out.

On Friday, Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican appointed to the position by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, announced to county clerks and other elections officials in Oregon's 36 counties that “today is also Steve Trout’s last day with the agency.”

Election officials in the state were stunned.

Steve Druckenmiller, the veteran Linn County clerk, said Clarno's action was “dangerous and so ignorant.”

“We are still in the election process right now. We are reconciling, we’re dealing with problems right now as far as your signatures and communicating with voters who didn’t sign the ballots," Druckenmiller said. “We’re going to have to do recounts, all of these things. She doesn’t understand elections.”

Clarno’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trout said in an email to The Associated Press that although he had already planned to seek a new job, he did not want to go this soon.

“I would never leave in the middle of an election,” Trout said. “This is the toughest part of the election behind the scenes with the canvass, manual audit, electoral college and recounts. I would not abandon my staff or the counties before the election is over.”

Trout, in a Nov. 2 letter to the Republican and Democratic candidates to replace Clarno, described problems with the internet technology side of the secretary of state's office.

He also said federal money had been misspent and that $11.7 million from the federal government must be returned by Dec. 31 because the Legislature did not authorize to “spend a penny” of the funds.

This happened even as the Oregon Centralized Voter Registration system is so old that Microsoft no longer supports the Windows Server 2008 system that it operates on, Trout and county election officials said.

The secretary of state's office was going to take bids — known as a request for proposal, or RFP — in October for a new system, but Clarno paused it without consulting with the county clerks or Trout, the ousted election director said.

Harney County Clerk Derrin “Dag” Robinson said Monday he felt frustrated.

“We went through a lot of work to develop an RFP and then to have the secretary pull the plug on that, and then not even mention it to us,” Robinson said. "The counties are stakeholders in that as well. We were led to believe that there was going to be an RFP going out because there was some funding to help with it. And then, nothing.”

Trout said the delay was apparently caused because the purchasing team could not meet a timeline even though the team had been provided with funds for one full-time employee to work exclusively on the request for proposal.

“The person did not work exclusively on the RFP, which means federal funds were inappropriately used and may need to be returned after an audit,” Trout said.

Furthermore, Trout said calls by himself and other election officials for third-party verification systems to prevent Oregon from hacking of election systems went unheeded. In 2018, then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson earmarked $100,000 in federal funds to install multi-factor authentication for people accessing election systems.

But Richardson, a Republican, died of cancer in February 2019. Clarno was appointed by Brown to replace him. A multi-factor authentication system never happened.

Of the six other projects that Richardson had intended to use $3.2 million in federal funds in 2018 for, only one was accomplished" the hiring of two internet technology security staffers, Trout said.

Trout said he's seen no benefit from the hiring of the staffers, who are under the secretary of state's internet technology department, as is the state elections office. Trout said he received no election security updates from the technology department for the 2020 election until 7:52 p.m. on election night.

State Sen. Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, won the election to replace Clarno, beating Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher.

Trout told Fagan and Thatcher on Nov. 2 that he was interviewing for new jobs “because I cannot succeed with the current state of technology and lack of support in the agency.”

Robinson, the county clerk in the eastern Oregon county, said Trout will be hard to replace.

“I think Steve is by far the most qualified person to serve in that role," Robinson said. "The counties have had an excellent relationship with the elections division with him at the helm.”

Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, election workers organize ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, Ore. Oregon's elections director was abruptly fired in a text message by the secretary of state after he pointed out serious issues with the state's aging and vulnerable technology for running elections. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein, File)