Former President Donald Trump has been extremely vocal with his claims that the 2020 general election was stolen, claiming people impersonated other voters, voting machines switched selections from him to Joe Biden, and more. He made similar claims during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Many organizations and experts have refuted Trump’s assertions; state and federal judges dismissed more than 50 lawsuits presented by Trump and his allies challenging the 2020 election. Locally, county staff consider allegations of fraud a non-starter — they’re simply not seeing fraud occur around the region.
Still, with election chatter mounting, our counties are doubling down on election transparency, giving people less room to cry fraudulent foul.
The 2022 primaries takes place June 7 in California and June 14 in Nevada. The Basin-area counties are preparing for the big days by further increasing options for election transparency. That includes focusing on top-of-mind topics for many: the security of voting by mail, what kind of fraudulent voting is taking place (yes, it’s happening, just not the way Trump alleges), and how community members are showing increasing interest in what’s going on at election centers.
One if by land, two if by mail
Two years of pandemic mandates prohibiting large groups of people led to a move for statewide vote-by-mail ballots across the U.S. California Assembly Bill 37, passed in September 2021, now requires every registered voter in the state to receive a ballot in the mail. A similar bill, AB 321, also passed in the Nevada legislature last year.
By May 9, or 29 days before the election, ballots will have been mailed out to all registered California residents. Ballots for Nevadans will go out by May 25. Each envelope requires a signature that is used to verify the voter’s identity. The completed ballots can be mailed back to the appropriate county elections official free of charge or dropped into drop boxes located around each county. Upon receipt of the ballots, county staff confirms the signatures match what’s on each person’s voter registration card.
“Our signature verification people are excellent at being able to determine if a signature matches or doesn’t match,” said Ryan Ronco, Placer County’s clerk/recorder/registrar of voters. “All of our permanent staff are trained by a forensic document examiner, a retired guy from the FBI. We look at thousands and thousands and thousands of signatures in an election.”
Election staff members in both California and Nevada are required to take forensic signature verification training.
Despite attempts by some politicians to disparage mail-in voting, local residents have not been discouraged from returning their ballots by mail. “Our [mail-in ballot] numbers have stayed the same,” said Bill O’Neill, registrar of voters with El Dorado County. The county had about 93% of votes cast by mail in the two most recent elections.
In Nevada County for the fall 2021 California gubernatorial recall (unsuccessful in its efforts to pull Gov. Gavin Newsom from office), about 50% of returned ballots came via U.S. mail, 40% came through a drop box (still considered vote by mail), 5% to 6% of voters showed up in person, and the remaining portion came from military members or overseas.
In Placer, the two most recent elections saw 95% of registered voters using vote-by-mail options. Prior to Covid, about 82% voted by mail. In Washoe County, the 2020 general election had 43% of votes come in by mail, 31% through in-person early voting, and 8% via in-person on Election Day. The remaining 16% of Washoe’s registered voters did not vote.
Attempted fraudulent voting
“We see fraud every election,” Ronco said. “I want to make sure that I say that up front.” However, he continued, this fraud isn’t being performed in the ways being alleged by Trump.
“The fraud that we see in Placer County, generally speaking, is household fraud,” Ronco explained. “It’s the parent who knows the kids are away and knows the kids are probably not going to vote, so they go ahead and grab the ballot for their son or daughter or both and decide to send that in. Then we will get that ballot, we’ll check the signature, and the signature doesn’t match.”
In El Dorado County, O’Neill mentioned a variety of reasons a signature might not match: parents signing for children, a wife for her husband, and even a doctor who used his prescription signature instead of his regular one. Voters whose signatures don’t match receive a postcard in the mail saying so and are given options for how to proceed, like coming in person to review the signature. “We probably reject somewhere between 150 and 250 signatures in any given election because they don’t match,” O’Neill said.
If a ballot is submitted that’s in question — for example, someone received a vote-by-mail ballot but doesn’t bring that ballot with them when he or she comes to vote in person, or someone forgets they’ve voted and tries to do so again — it’s put into a provisional ballot envelope, signifying to election staff that the voter’s eligibility needs to be confirmed before the vote can count.
Bethany Drysdale, media and communications manager with Washoe County (which includes Incline Village), shared that Washoe also has few fraud cases; normally people sending in an absentee ballot, then showing up in person forgetting they’d already voted.
“We had a spike in these types of mistakes in the 2020 general election, which was the first election in which every registered voter received a [mail-in] ballot and there were numerous vote centers for early and Election Day voting,” she wrote in an email. “Because the ballots are bar-coded and specific to the voter, these cases are caught and cleared up very easily. There are occasional cases of someone attempting to cast a ballot that isn’t theirs and attempting to cast their own ballot. These cases are rare, and they are referred to the secretary of state.”
In Ronco’s three decades of working for the Placer election office, he says three or fewer people have said a ballot didn’t represent what they’d voted. “To only have three, I’d say that that’s a pretty good number, or at least an indication that ballots aren’t being grabbed by people willy-nilly,” he said.
The few, the proud, the angry
On Jan. 20 of this year, three people entered the Nevada County Clerk Recorder/Registrar of Voters Office, ignored Covid-19 protocols and mask mandate requirements, pushed an employee, and demanded to know the status of their efforts to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Public access to the lobby was subsequently suspended and Natalie Adona, assistant clerk-recorder/registrar of voters, filed a three-year restraining order against one of the three at the recommendation of county legal counsel. “There was something that could be construed as a threat directed at me,” Adona said.
There have been other disagreeable encounters. One election observer was wary of a person who was picking up completed ballots because of their skin color (Black). “It was pretty offensive,” Adona said. “We asked the organization [the observer] was representing to not allow that person back here.”
While Ronco at Placer County didn’t have specific instances of security concerns, he said some people have shared false information after-the-fact. “I went to a speech a couple of weeks ago where somebody said, ‘I was at the polling place and the poll workers said that they’d had hundreds of people today walk in saying that they came in to vote and [the workers] showed that they had already voted.’ It’s just not true.”
According to Ronco, very few people who show up at Placer polls claim someone had already signed the voting roster by their name. While it does happen, it’s normally because someone signed the roster on the wrong line and that’s easy to clear up.
“There’s sometimes a desire by people to be a part of the story or be a part of what they’re hearing in the narrative of the day,” Ronco said. “And I think that they might honestly believe that there’s fraud and so they’re trying to do something good and help out. But on election day, we just aren’t getting those phone calls from the polls saying, ‘I’m here and somebody has signed for me.’”
Some constituents in Washoe County have directed their anger about the 2020 general election toward the registrar of voters and election workers. In addition to angry phone calls to the registrar’s office, at a February 2022 commission board meeting, members of the public called the county registrar a traitor and demanded that she be removed from her position. In general, law enforcement is notified of any threats made, Drysdale stated, adding, “We are confident [in] our security plan and measures in place to protect staff. We are not aware of harassment at the polling places that required intervention from law enforcement.”
In early February 2021, a few weeks after the January attack on the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon encouraged listeners of his War Room podcast to seize control of precinct offices, which are a subdivision of an electoral district.
However, no one interviewed noticed any fall-out from Bannon’s call.
Many of the elected position contests in El Dorado County this election year have had only a single person file to run for office for such positions as the auditor-controller, district attorney, and sheriff, to name a few, which O’Neill says is unusual, but such positions are nonpartisan. Contests with only one candidate will be automatically elected and no run-off will be held come November’s general election. O’Neill added that oftentimes hyper-local contests in November will only have one candidate. This fall, close to 70 El Dorado seats (school boards, fire districts, and more) are up for election, plus any run-offs from the primary. Candidate filing ended in mid-March.
Adona spoke to the bringing on of poll workers for each election. “When we recruit poll workers, we don’t ask them about their political affiliation,” she said. “We only require that they be registered to vote and that’s pursuant to state law … For the most part, we just want to know, okay, are you going to follow the rules that are set out for you? Are you going to show up? A great deal of our poll workers are returning, and they have done well in all elections. And that’s across the board, no matter what the political affiliation is.”
The number of election observers, meanwhile, has increased. The 2020 presidential election saw the highest number ever in El Dorado County — between 100 and 150, by O’Neill’s count. The 2016 General Election, as a comparison, had 30 to 50 observers.
“In November 2020, the local Democratic central committee put together a very well-planned group of observers to be at every vote center for the entire election, which was the best thought-out observer effort I have seen,” O’Neill said. “We also had a lot of various members of the public and Republican observers, just less formal than the Democrat effort. We also had an unprecedented number of tours for that election including home schools and individuals.”
O’Neill and his counterparts in other counties were vocal in their welcome of anyone who wants to watch how ballots are counted, no appointment necessary. “Our doors are always open,” he said. “We have areas where it’s secure and they can watch the whole process and they can ask questions the whole time.”
Nevada County recently installed a large window displaying its ballot room, allowing members of the public to view the ballot examinations. People are also welcome into the office for observation. “We do want people to know what it is that we’re doing,” Adona said.
In Washoe County, the election offices have provided larger accommodations for staff to sort, process, and store mailed-in ballots. An observation area was installed at the end of April, expanding seating from two to eight observers at a time.
“The new observation area is built in a location that provides a better view of the entire election office, and observers will be able to see every step of the ballot process,” Drysdale said. “We strategically placed the processing stations (intake, sorting, signature verification, adjudication, etc.) with the observation area in mind to ensure that observers get a full view of each station.”
Observers or not, O’Neill encouraged anyone who’s registered to vote to do so. “I always equate running an election to running a big party,” he said. “… When only 30% of your friends show up, it’s such a disappointment.”
Most importantly, O’Neill said, “Vote!”
2022 Primary Elections
Primary Election: June 7
Early voting: May 9 through June 6
Nevada County’s in-person voting locations: nevadacountyca.gov/3491/june-7-2022-vote-center-locations
Placer County’s in-person voting locations: placercountyelections.gov/polling-place-locator
El Dorado County’s in-person voting locations: edcgov.us/government/elections/june-7-2022-gubernatorial-primary-election
2022 election information: sos.ca.gov/elections/upcoming-elections/primary-election-june-7-2022
Primary Election: June 14
Early voting: May 28 through June 10
Washoe County’s in-person voting locations: washoecounty.gov/voters/elections/polling_location.php
2022 election information: nvsos.gov/sos/elections/2022-election-information
Registered Voters in Our Region
As of press deadline, the four counties in Moonshine’s coverage area are home to the following approximate number of registered voters (note these are overall county totals):
- Nevada: 75,225 registered voters | 103,487 total population
- Placer: 275,245 registered voters | 412,300 total population
- El Dorado: 137,784 registered voters | 193,221 total population
- Washoe: 310,772 registered voters | 493,392 total population