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California Election Workers Make Comeback After COVID and Conspiracy Claims

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Poll workers Twyla Carpenter (left) and Regina Jasperse inspect the lock on a vote by mail drop box at a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake, California, during a special election in Shasta County on Nov. 7, 2023. Workers must verify that the locks are intact and secure the box multiple times during the day. (Fred Greaves/CalMatters)

Between COVID-19 and election fraud conspiracy theories since 2020, it has been a tumultuous time for California’s election workers.

The state lost 15% of its election officials between the November 2020 election and July 2021, according to the California Voter Foundation, which documented incidents of threats, harassment and stress. While not all left due to safety concerns, more than half of California counties have a new registrar of voters since 2020, compared to a 17% turnover between 2016 and 2020.

Soon joining that list is Cathy Darling Allen, the registrar in Shasta County, where officials have faced intimidation and threats by some unhappy with election results. She announced in February that she is retiring in May due to health issues — and reducing stress is essential to recovery.

In November, tensions heightened when suspicious envelopes were sent to election offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Another arrived at Yuba County’s office in January and tested positive for fentanyl.

But ahead of Tuesday’s end of primary voting, elections officials in more than a dozen California counties say they’re in good shape for staffing permanent and temporary poll workers.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, attributes the shift to the attitudes of both election workers and voters.

“People care very deeply about the right to vote and want to protect that,” she said.

“We’ve had over four years now of people hearing this false narrative about elections,” she added. And while elections aren’t perfect, “it doesn’t add up to widespread fraud, and I think people know that.”

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Since 2020, county elections officials have taken several steps to strengthen the protection of workers — including safety protocols for possible fentanyl-laced envelopes — and to educate people that their vote is secure.

In Orange County, for example, the elections office works closely with local law enforcement and the health department to ensure the safety of election workers and voters, said Bob Page, the county’s registrar of voters.

The county has recruited about 1,600 people to work on elections — the result of a monthslong process that involves outreach efforts, background checks and training.

“We know it’s important to make sure we give people that work in the vote centers the tools to provide good customer service and try to help people who have concerns or may be a little disruptive when they come in,” he said. “Safety is something we’re going to keep paying attention to.”

Still, election security doesn’t seem to be the only motivating factor. Some counties that have opted into the Voter’s Choice Act, which extends in-person voting to 10 days, say shorter shifts and fewer locations make it easier to hire staff.

There’s also money: In San Bernardino County, funding to increase stipends for poll workers and to hire additional full-time staff has helped.

“The election cycle and election preparation is a very stressful environment, with a lot of work in a small amount of time,” said Stephanie Shea, the county’s registrar of voters. “We’ve been fortunate that the board has approved additional positions that have helped us with our preparation for our elections.”

For the November 2022 election, the county had about 2,300 poll workers. For this year’s primary, it recruited more than 2,500.

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And in Kings County — where the county elections office is fully staffed for the first time since 2019 — Registrar of Voters Lupe Villa said he believes more people are looking for work now compared to 2020.

But while safety seems to be less of a concern for election worker recruitment, incidents such as the suspicious envelopes and packages sent to Yuba, Los Angeles and Sacramento elections offices show the danger hasn’t entirely subsided.

No staff were harmed in any of those cases. In January, the secretary of state’s office said it sent guidance to all counties on safety protocols and coordination with local, state and federal authorities.

Joe Kocurek, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said Thursday there were no updates on the status of the three investigations that law enforcement agencies are handling.

In response to these incidents, county officials said they have trained employees to administer Narcan — an opioid overdose treatment — and stock gloves and masks to handle mail.

In Sacramento, at least, the scare didn’t seem to hamper the county’s ability to recruit workers for the primary. It has recruited 1,400 workers — including many who helped in prior elections, said Kenneth Casparis, a spokesperson for the county.

Despite improvement statewide, some counties in California continue to face challenges.

Mono County has struggled to recruit and retain both temporary elections staff and poll workers — even after increasing pay to the minimum wage, said Queenie Barnard, Mono County’s clerk-recorder-registrar.

A voter fills out their ballot at a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake, California, during a special election in Shasta County on Nov. 7, 2023. (Fred Greaves/CalMatters)

And in Shasta, where Donald Trump won 65% of the vote in 2020, not much has changed, said Joanna Francescut, the assistant registrar of voters. Voters who show up in person are often angry and yell at staff or workers — which makes it difficult to find workers willing to deal with that for 12 to 16 hours a day for little pay, she said.

“The poll workers that worked in 2020, we would call to recruit them in 2022, and we’d often hear, ‘That last election terrified me, and I don’t feel comfortable coming back immediately. If things settle down in a couple of years, I’ll come back after that point,’” Francescut said. “So we’re hearing that consistently, and that hasn’t changed.”

“We’ve had over four years now of people hearing this false narrative about elections,” she added. And while elections aren’t perfect, “it doesn’t add up to widespread fraud, and I think people know that.”

Recent state laws, such as one in 2022 that allows election workers to shield their addresses from the public, haven’t had a noticeable impact yet, according to election officials throughout the state.

And a law to address the decision by Shasta County’s Board of Supervisors to cancel its contract with Dominion Voting Machines and require a hand count only decreased trust among some residents, Francescut said. The law, signed by the governor in October, limits hand-counting to only regular elections with less than 1,000 registered voters and special elections with fewer than 5,000 voters.

“This isn’t something that’s going away because the state Legislature’s changed the law,” Francescut said.

An elections commission in the county, with about 112,000 registered voters continues to push for hand-counting ballots. But on Tuesday, one of the supervisors who voted to get rid of the voting machines faces a recall election.

Francescut said she hopes that legislators might understand the different points of view in Shasta County so that they can work together to achieve their shared goal of getting people to vote.

She also said the best way to protect election officials is to provide them with resources and training, especially given the changes in the last few years: “These people have been through a lot of stress, a lot of trauma, just for doing their work.”

But she also had a reminder for voters: “We are, in fact, humans, and people that have families and children and live in this community. People tend to forget that.”

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