Oregon elections director fired after he details problems

By ANDREW SELSKY

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, in a letter emailed on Nov. 2 to the Republican and Democratic candidates to replace Clarno, who did not run, 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 — officially known as requests for proposal, or RFP — in October for a new system, but Clarno paused this project without consulting with the county clerks or Trout, the ousted election director said.

Harney County Clerk Derrin “Dag” Robinson, speaking on the phone from the county seat of Burns on Monday, said he felt frustrated by Clarno’s putting the brakes on taking requests for proposals for a new system.

“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 the timeline even though the team had been provided with funds for one full-time employee to work exclusively on the request for proposals.

“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. “This delay will mean the new system likely will not be able to go live until 2027.”

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. Brown, a Democrat, named the Republican Clarno to replace him under the agreement she would not run for the office in 2020.

Of the seven projects that Richardson had intended to use $3.2 million in federal funds that year to improve the state’s vote-by-mail election system, only one was accomplished, Trout said. That was the hiring of two permanent internet technology security staffers. The multi-factor authentication for the security of all Oregon Centralized Voter Registration system users never happened.

Trout said he’s seen no benefit from the hiring of the IT security 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.

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.”

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

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