Despite continuing national concerns about election integrity, it’s clear that California’s county registrars of voters — the heroes of the 2020 election — made sure every vote was counted.
Last fall, my former editor at The Fresno Bee called to ask: Would I be interested in covering California’s election administration for CalMatters?
That was the beginning of a three-month stint reporting for Votebeat, a nonpartisan “pop-up newsroom” in eight states whose mission was to cover the integrity of the 2020 election. Created by the news site Chalkbeat, Votebeat was a collaboration of media companies and nonprofits including CalMatters, The Bee, the Long Beach Post, and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in California.
My reporting allowed me to witness the historic 2020 election up close and investigate claims of fraud or funny business.
Despite widespread and continuing national concerns about election integrity, it’s clear that county registrars of voters in California — the heroes of the 2020 election — made sure every vote was counted.
They accomplished their task in the midst of a pandemic that made voting in person a potential health risk, which is why every voter in California was mailed a ballot to return postage free. As someone who looked for trouble but found few examples, it’s clear the election in California went smoothly.
Fraud? No, and I attribute that to the many laws and regulations governing voting and voter registration in this state. It’s virtually impossible for massive fraud to occur.
I learned state law protects against any hacking of voting machine computers through a common-sense measure: voting machines are not connected to the internet. Counties use surveillance cameras to protect their computers, and two people always must be in the computer room at the same time. Registrars told me very few people have keycard access.
State law also builds in safeguards. Elections officials conduct post-election audits to make sure the vote count matches the ballots perfectly, a process strictly defined by lots of rules and regulations.
One of the election security questions I investigated was how counties kept vote totals secret given that large quantities of mail ballots arrived early and were pre-processed. I spoke with several registrars of voters who gave similar answers: they have two separate computer servers. One scans the paper ballots. Another, which has different software, counts the ballots. After the polls close on election day, county officials push the button that counts ballots. That’s also in the law.
Yes, some odd incidents took place, such as the discovery after vote certification of more than 500 ballots in a drop box in Butte County, requiring the county to petition the Secretary of State for permission to recertify the results. And an arson fire in a drop box in Los Angeles County damaged about 100 ballots, but replacement ballots were mailed to the affected voters. These were one-off occurrences.
In the news business, we call sources who aren’t officials “real people.” Most reporters I know agree it’s a treat to talk with them when reporting the issues.
On election day, I stopped by my local polling place and met a 73-year-old woman walking out. She was elated — she had just voted for the first time in her life.
Her religion discouraged her from voting, she said, so she always had skipped it. But a good friend who was a fervent supporter of President Donald Trump had recently died, so she decided to do same-day registration and vote for the first time.
“I voted straight Republican in honor of him,” she told me.
Next, I drove to a polling place in Fresno. Two young activists were handing out a tip sheet on how to vote on the propositions. As required under the no electioneering laws, they were more than 100 feet from the polling place and brought a 100-foot rope to prove it if anyone should challenge them.
I sought out the polling place inspector to ask how things were going. As we were talking, a security guard arrived and said he was on shift. To avoid any voter intimidation, the state regulates where people in uniform can stand at polling places, so the inspector told him to avoid the entry area.
That’s yet another example of how detailed election law is.
When I started this reporting, I knew I had to get up to speed quickly. Every one of California’s 58 voter registrars is listed on the Secretary of State’s website, by county, name and phone number. I started calling.
I spoke with several registrars and a few public information officers.
Some said their workload was increasing because of election observers who believed the election process in California is corrupt. One county registrar said he was about to impose a rule that all questions by observers must be submitted in writing. It’s an understandable response that might prove to be of interest to other counties.
I was surprised to learn from the registrar of voters in Shasta County (home to some who want a “state of Jefferson” to break away from California) that voters were personally bringing their ballots into the office to be sure they’d be counted.
This fear of ballots not being counted stemmed from news reports that mail ballots were stacking up in post offices because of budget cuts and the widespread perception that the Trump administration and his new director of the U.S. Postal Service were purposely slowing delivery so mail-in ballots wouldn’t get to the elections department in time to be counted.
I grabbed my reporter’s notebook and went to the lobby outside of the elections department in Tulare County and talked to several voters, all rational people. They said they just wanted to be sure, so they drove to the elections department to personally place their ballots into the metal drop box in the lobby.
During election season, especially after election day, most registrars are too busy for interviews. When I finally reached them, though, I found them generally happy to answer questions. They appreciated the opportunity to educate the public.
Polling place volunteers are on the front line. In Tulare County, an uncooperative voter wearing a shirt with the name of a candidate — that’s a form of electioneering and is against the rules — was especially uncooperative. But polling place inspector Cheri Provancha, a retired career military officer, wouldn’t let him vote inside unless the name was not visible. Instead, he voted outside and put his ballot in the drop box.
Jeannette Logue of Redding became my favorite polling place volunteer because she told me that when voters show up and their name isn’t on the roster, it can be dispiriting. She tells them, “You’re not getting out of here without voting!” and gets them a provisional ballot.
I repeatedly discovered that kind of dedication to protecting the right of Californians to vote during interviews and visits across the state. It was a privileged seat at the table during a historic election, one that left me confident about the words of Chris Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, who was fired by President Donald Trump for his public assessment after the election that it was “the most secure in American history.” In California, it certainly seemed to be.
Votebeat is a national media collaboration about the administration and integrity of, and issues regarding, the unprecedented 2020 election. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.