From a VIP visit in the morning to a nightmarishly located – but apparently accidental – blob of ink found on at least nine ballots: Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship didn’t have a roller-coaster ride on the always-busy Friday before Election Day. It was more like that scream-inducing, theme-park elevator free-fall.
Secretary of State Bill Bradbury had stopped by on a whirlwind state tour, four days before the ballots get counted, and praised the work being done, while predicting an 84 percent ballot return. That would be the highest turnout for an Oregon presidential election since the 86 percent who went to the polls – remember the polls? – in 1960, to choose between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
Little did Blankenship know of the troubles coming her way – a county clerk’s nightmare come to life – a printing problem discovered on already-mailed ballots in a heated presidential election.
In that presidential area of the ballot, no less – an inkblot right next to the Democratic ticket’s oval.
A Redmond-area couple, both registered Republicans, who had opened their mail-ballot envelopes a week earlier. Actually, Lorie Kulin said she opened her own ballot first, then the one for her husband, Steve who she assists with the voting process, for good reason: He is legally blind, with retinitis pigmentosa.
After opening her ballot, Lorie spotted an odd blob of ink, just above (and touching) the oval for the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards, the ones atop the list of presidential candidates (arranged randomly on the ballot).
“It kind of concerned me,” Kulin said. “I was afraid more than anything that my vote would not be counted.”
But then she opened her husband’s ballot envelope and found the same “little ink blotch.”
“It had the exact same mark, the same exact spot,” she said. “I said, `Wait a minute – what in the world?'”
Kulin, like just about everyone, has a busy life, and knew she had time to deal with the matter, so she first contacted the state Elections Division.
“My only concern was that I could get a clean ballot in time to actually vote,” Lorie Kulin said.
Republicans interested in fouled ballots
The state office in turn pointed her to the county clerk’s office in downtown Bend. Trouble is, she couldn’t find it. But the Kulins did spot the county Republican campaign headquarters, located across Wall Street, and stopped in Friday. Needless to say, the GOP officials on hand were quite interested in what the couple had gotten in the mail.
That led to an Oregon Republican Party advisory to the media, and reporters meeting the Kulins across the street at Blankenship’s office, where the fouled ballots were exchanged for clean ones. State Rep. Gene Whisnant, the Deschutes County GOP chairman, was on hand as well, and later said he isn’t pointing any fingers.
“We have trust and confidence in the county clerk and her staff,” Whisnant said Friday night.
But then the blotted ballots were tested, to see if the marks would have been counted as a Kerry-Edwards vote.
“She (Blankenship) didn’t think it would scan,” Whisnant said. “It did scan.”
As a vote for Kerry-Edwards.
“It’s only on one ballot style,” among the several prepared for this election’s various combinations of local and state/federal measures, Blankenship said.
She said a third Redmond-area voter had brought in a ballot with a similar – though gray, not black – mark earlier in the week, and the clerk’s office simply swapped it for a new one, unaware it was part of a series.
As it turns out, Bend also is the location of Ryder Election Services, which prints ballots for numerous counties around the state. And so, a call was made late Friday.
“We had Tom Ryder come in,” Blankenship said. “He hasn’t run across this before. It appears, for lack of a better, technical term, a blob of ink got placed on one ballot, and before it dried,” also got transferred to a “handful” of other ballots. (Whisnant said Ryder told officials there could be six to 12 ballots with the mark on them.)
“Nancy thanked us for turning it in,” Whisnant said, and apparently was going to notify other counties, just to be sure.
The blob of ink wasn’t as worrisome as its apparently coincidental location on the ballot, the local GOP officials said. If some voters didn’t notice (or didn’t think it mattered), their mark for another ticket – say, the president and vice president – would be discounted, as two votes in the same race are considered an “overvote,” and thus discarded from the tally.
“That’s why it got our feathers a little up,” Whisnant said. “People make mistakes, and I hope that’s all it was. We just want to make sure no one loses the right to vote. “
Long night of work finds half-dozen more
Some of the election boards who had been processing the ballots stayed on late Friday night, and both parties sent in observers to watch, as all the ballots of that style were checked, from nine precincts outside of Redmond’s urban growth boundary.
“Where I live,” Blankenship, the former Redmond city recorder, coincidentally noted. (This is her first presidential election in the post, after succeeding long-time clerk Susie Penhollow.)
By around 10 p.m., they were done, and had found six more ballots with the blob. Five had been marked with votes for Bush, so the boards duplicated those ballots, as state law dictates for problem ballots (such as ones with coffee stains, etc.)
The sixth ballot with the ink mark was from a voter who marked the ballot for Kerry, so no action was taken, Blankenship said. But there could be more of the ink-blot ballots, she said, so “we’ll be paying special attention Monday and Tuesday.”
“This is one of those things where in 20 years, we’ll look back and laugh,” the clerk said. “But not right now.”
By the way, 57 percent of the nearly 86,000 Deschutes County ballots were back at the clerk’s office by late Friday, while Crook County had 61 percent back and Jefferson County 56 percent. The statewide count through Thursday was at 51 percent of the 2,150,777 ballots.
The ability of election boards to open the secrecy envelopes and check the ballots a week ahead of the counting process – a two-day increase from 2000, courtesy of the Legislature – has drawn concern from some who fear shenanigans could happen in some counties. But what about catching things like blobs of ink near the all-important ovals? “Apparently, they missed that,” Blankenship said, adding, “Now we know what we’re looking for.”
Bradbury bristled at talk show host Lars Larson’s suggestion that Republicans pay no heed to their party’s call for voting early, and wait until the last minute, to avoid any elections office hanky-panky.
“I’d like him to come down and tell them (the boards) they are going to do that,” the secretary of state said.
Bradbury and Attorney General Hardy Myers are investigating the allegations involving Sproul and Associates, that the GOP consulting firm’s employees had discarded Democratic voter registration cards. “It’s legal to collect only one party’s registrations,” the secretary of state said – but not to collect cards from both parties and only turn in one’s. “That’s a Class C felony,” he said.
There’s also been concern about the ability of people to register to vote in more than one county, though clerk’s offices have nipped any effort at voting twice in the bud. Bradbury said the new, statewide voter registration database, due online by the 2006 primary, will petty much erase that potential.
It’s been a frantic time at clerk’s offices, as 200,000 voters were added to the rolls in the month before the registration deadline. There have been other glitches – empty envelopes mailed in Washington County, reports of duplicate ballot mailings to the same person in Marion County.
“There’s always glitches like that,” Bradbury said, and yet, “It’s really clear we do have an incredibly effective, fraud-free election system. I feel really good. I think a person should feel 100 percent safe in voting.”
And Bradbury still suggests folks not hand their ballot to anyone to turn in for them, but to treat it like a mortgage or paycheck – and Blankenship agrees.
The centralized voter registration database will cost $6 million, along with $5 million to maintain it for the next five years.
Fortunately, Oregon now has no chance of joining Florida in the “hanging/pregnant chads” debacle of 2000. The last counties phased out punch cards and moved to optical scan readers last January.
Oregon elections officials are discussing whether to try out electronic voting systems, but Anne Martens, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said, “Only so far as they will assist disabled voters, and they will be required to produce a paper trail. Some of the machines make it much easier for the disabled – for example, a paraplegic can blow into a tube to mark their choice.”
The ballot count took days to conclude in Oregon in 2000, in part because the results were so close – a 6,700-vote win for Al Gore, or by 1/10 of 1 percent, Bradbury noted. “If it’s that close again, it’s going to take a while” to determine the winner, Bradbury said – and challenges are likely, of course, with many lawyers for both major parties standing at the ready.
And that’s why elections officials often voice what Bradbury and Blankenship called the “5 percent prayer”: “Please, let somebody win” by 5 percent – officially, of course, they don’t care who.