PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Authorities on Friday were investigating alleged ballot tampering by an elections worker in one of Oregon's most populous counties.
The extent of the tampering in Clackamas County, which primarily comprises Portland suburbs, was not immediately clear.
The Willamette Week newspaper reported that the election worker, who was not identified, filled in Republican bubbles on ballots where preferences had been left empty by voters.
A person with knowledge of the investigation said Willamette Week accurately described the incident. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
Oregon was the first state to conduct elections exclusively by mail, and this the fourth presidential election in which the system has been used. Despite initial fears that the method would lead to fraud, allegations have been rare.
County Clerk Sherry Hall said a criminal violation of election law was uncovered by her office Wednesday and reported to the secretary of state's Elections Division. Hall declined to identify the worker or describe the specific nature of the violation.
Because it's a criminal matter, the Elections Division referred the case to the state Department of Justice.
"We can confirm we are currently investigating criminal felony violations of Oregon's election laws, which allegedly took place in Clackamas County and allegedly involved a temporary county elections employee tampering with cast ballots," said Jeff Manning, the DOJ spokesman.
He said the agency realizes the timing of the allegation is "really concerning," and it hopes to resolve it quickly.
Officials wouldn't say Friday how extensive they suspect the tampering was. About 95,500 of the county's 228,000 registered voters had already returned their ballots as of Thursday.
Clackamas County is home to 10 percent of Oregon's registered voters, is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and is a swing county that is pivotal in deciding close statewide races. Three neck-and-neck legislative races could be decisive in determining which party controls the state House.
A Republican effort to stop Portland liberalism from creeping into the county has emerged as a dominant theme in its recent elections.
Chris Edmonds, the campaign manager for county Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan, a Democrat, said the campaign will be talking to attorneys throughout the day as it explores possible legal action.
"We don't know whether this was an individual acting alone or if this was part of a coordinated effort," he said.
Lehan's opponent, Republican John Ludlow, emphasized that an allegation is not a proof of guilt, but "if they did it, it was dead wrong."
Edmonds noted that up to 30 percent of voters focus solely on the major races, such as U.S. president, and skip county commission and other local races, meaning tens of thousands of voters may not have participated in the Lehan-Ludlow race. Given that the race is expected to be tight, even a few illegal markings could decide it, he said.
"We may not be able to know the full extent of the fraud, and that's what we're trying to know," Edmonds said. "When someone's just filling in a bubble, how can we go back and know the true intent of the voter?"