Beware: When partisans of any political persuasion clamor for an election reform, the potential to corrupt the process and erode voters’ trust looms.
Earlier this month, people appeared before the Kern County Board of Supervisors with a long list of grievances and a request that a separate department be created to oversee local elections.
Their grievances stemmed from the 2020 presidential election and 2021 failed recall of Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Critics alleged the local election process was chaotic and plagued by fraud, and that poll workers inadequately verified voter signatures and were rude to “election observers.”
“I observed two polls, no training at all,” said Flor Hull, an election observer and volunteer with the recall campaign.
Vincent Maiocco, president of the Taft Republican Assembly, asked supervisors to establish a stand-alone department that focuses only on elections.
Kern supervisors, who said they would consider the proposal after the June primary, must move cautiously. Consider who would oversee such a department and how it would be insulated from political influence.
Presently, elections are overseen by Mary Bedard, Kern’s elected Auditor-Controller-County Clerk. Within her department is an elections division that has a staff and supervisor, who responds to Bedard.
Years ago, in what was called a cost-savings move, the Board of Supervisors merged several departments that were headed by locally elected officials. But really, supervisors had tired of politically jousting with elected department heads, who were beyond their control.
The Treasurer and Tax Collector offices had been merged years earlier. But starting in the mid-1990s, the Sheriff gobbled up the jobs of the elected Coroner-Public Administrator. Then the offices of Auditor, Controller and County Clerk were merged, as were the offices of the Assessor and County Recorder. That left only five elected department heads, including the District Attorney.
Elections can be challenging under the best of conditions. But 2020 and 2021 elections were conducted under conditions that were far from the best.
The pandemic and need to protect voters from COVID-19 led to a massive vote-by-mail 2020 presidential election. Mailed ballots require more processing time, because voter signatures on returned envelopes must be verified and other safeguards met.
Bedard explained that voting with provisional ballots also increased, because some voters still wanted to vote in person, rather than by mail, but did not bring the ballots they had received in the mail to the polls to surrender. They had to vote “provisionally,” with their ballots counted only after it was verified that they only voted once.
Adding to Kern’s 2020 challenges were the retirements of the elections supervisor and several long-time staff members in 2019. Bedard hired a replacement supervisor, but she was gone shortly before the 2020 election. Despite all the challenges, Kern still met the state’s deadline for certifying 2020 election results.
The pandemic and nationwide threats to election workers have created staffing shortages that plague local, state and federal elections. Kern’s shortage for the 2021 recall was so severe that last-minute temporary workers had to be hired to keep polls open.
But there was no “widespread fraud” in the 2020 nationwide, or Kern vote count. Numerous judges and federal investigators, including Trump administration appointees, have concluded the election was one of the nation’s most secure.
However, persistent, unfounded claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” have led to threats and violence against election workers, and created doubts about the integrity of a system that is the foundation of our democracy.
Bedard told supervisors she is purchasing new equipment to address polling place problems and electronically verify voter signatures to speed ballot counting.
We must be understanding and supportive of the election process. Express our gratitude, rather than unwarranted criticism of the people who help us vote.