She called the 2020 election legitimate. Now she’s under attack in red California
The campaign mailer featured red letters over a distorted, close-up photo of the candidate’s face: THIS ELECTION VOTE FOR ANYBODY BUT NATALIE.
It called Natalie Adona, who is Asian American and running for office in a predominantly white, rural Northern California county, “a CARPETBAGGER.”
The postcards that were sent last month — which provoked outrage by some residents and by elected officials who called them racist — have been part of a vicious campaign for what was once a mundane, nonpartisan position: clerk-recorder and registrar of voters for Nevada County.
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Adona’s sins, in the eyes of her detractors: She called the 2020 election legitimate, and she enforced a mask mandate in a county office.
Adona, the assistant clerk-recorder/registar, is running to replace her boss, Gregory Diaz, who is retiring.
“Who uses the word ‘carpetbagger?’” Adona said. “The Civil War wants its insults back.”
She added, “It sort of seems like there’s fear that whatever the good old days were before are disappearing. And this sense of, ‘We need to get that back’ — I just happen to be in their way.”
The election in this Sierra Nevada county of 103,000 people has become a microcosm of the conspiracy-laden and bitterly partisan politics gripping the nation, as Americans — many enraged by pandemic policies and culture-war issues like critical race theory — head to the polls in this midterm year.
The draft letter was never presented to President Trump, but shows early thinking about the efforts to find fraud in the 2020 election.
Nevada County cuts through the Tahoe National Forest and includes Grass Valley, Truckee and the old mining town Rough and Ready. Unlike much of rural Northern California, it is not exactly a Republican stronghold, having backed Joe Biden over Donald Trump, 56% to 41%, and last year voting against recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But the specter of Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen looms large for many, with the distrust of vote tallies and election workers he fomented trickling down to small local races like this one.
Paul Gilbert, one of Adona’s opponents in the June 7 primary, is a self-described “citizen auditor” who personally inspected local 2020 election results. He says he found sloppy, outdated voter rolls and evidence of fraud — claims the county refutes.
Gilbert, a retired information technology engineer, says he thinks voting by mail leads to cheating.
He also believes election officials should have the right to break open and inspect voting machines because they could, among other things, have cellphone modems hidden inside that collect information for nefarious actors.
“There is a lack of due diligence,” Gilbert said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Gilbert said he had nothing to do with the mailer disparaging Adona and called it “a hit piece.” But he said the flier — which accused her of bringing Beltway politics to a county where she’s a relative newcomer — raised “valid questions.”
The other candidate, Jason Tedder, a Navy veteran endorsed by the local Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment.
Adona’s critics have tried to paint her as an out-of-town interloper who must be up to no good.
California’s 2022 primary election is Tuesday. Here’s how to cast a ballot.
A Vallejo, Calif., native with 14 years of experience on elections, Adona was working in Washington, D.C., for the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that aims to strengthen elections, when the Nevada County assistant clerk-recorder/registrar job came open in 2019.
After several years in Washington, she was eager to move home to California and do the election work she is passionate about, she said.
The campaign mailer called her “a Washington, D.C. outsider — and a new arrival to the County.”
Nevada County Supervisor Heidi Hall said she was shocked by the flier.
“They will say it’s not racist, that they just don’t like her,” she said. “But it’s racist.”
The vitriol in the county registrar election is spewing as far-right activists and financiers in conservative parts of rural Northern California are trying to wrest control of local government from the Republican establishment — and touting their playbook as a national model.
In February, voters in Shasta County stunned Californians by recalling a Republican county supervisor — a former police chief — claiming he was not conservative enough.
That recall’s backers included secessionists and militia members, along with anti-mask parents. They say they consulted with activists in Nevada County, who subsequently tried to recall all five of their supervisors for “crimes against humanity” and enforcing pandemic restrictions.
In January, Adona, who had just announced her candidacy, was working in the county elections office in Nevada City when a group of recall supporters showed up to check on the status of their petition to force a special election.
A statewide indoor mask mandate was in effect because of the winter COVID-19 surge fueled by the Omicron variant. But the recall supporters refused to wear face coverings.
One woman pushed a county employee as she and two others forced their way into a locked elections office. A judge later issued a restraining order against her.
The recall effort fizzled out last week when supporters missed their deadline to file signatures for their petition. In a statement provided to the news website YubaNet.com, supporters said they were going to throw their efforts into helping get Gilbert elected.
Gilbert, who spends his days in his vegetable garden, said he doubts the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump, he said, filled large venues with supporters, and Biden seemed to get only “dozens” at campaign stops, indicating that he had little support.
Nevertheless, Gilbert’s suspicions led him to start a business last year called Citizen Auditors of Nevada County and to pore over local voter rolls and election results, looking for fraud.
Adona, he said, didn’t take him seriously. He was insulted.
“I said, ‘I am going to have to run. I’m going to have to defend myself. I’m not afraid. I’m not a scam.’”
In an interview with The Times, Gilbert — who says he will not wear masks because he does not want to be part of a “medical experiment” — had a reporter meet him at the Grass Valley Wellness Center, which sells medical supplements. Inside were hundreds of issues of a local newspaper called the COVID Times.
In the most recent edition, the banner headline atop the front page read: “VOTE NO on Natalie Adona.”
Dan Mackenzie, who works at the wellness center, said he distributes the free newspaper, which recently featured a write-up by Gilbert about his election audit and a lengthy article promoting a documentary by MyPillow chief executive and pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
“We’re not rednecks,” Mackenzie said. “We’re conservative people who just want an honest vote. We want honest machines. We want honest software.”
Election workers, faced with a constant barrage of harassment and threats since the 2020 election, are quitting in droves across the country.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department created a task force to prosecute people who threaten election workers. California lawmakers are considering legislation that would treat poll workers with the same caution as domestic violence victims by letting them keep their home addresses hidden from public records.
“There’s death threats, there’s bullying and physical intimidation, there’s showing up at election offices and sometimes even at election officials’ homes to intimidate them,” said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who heads the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “And it’s ramping up.”
The increased harassment “is a direct result of the Trump election,” he said, adding that “there’s an entire industry built around the grift of convincing people who sincerely supported the former president that he didn’t lose, when, in fact, he lost badly.”
Election deniers are gaining traction in rural areas, running for office in places with few resources, he said.
“I wonder how many people will be calling my office about forensic audits tomorrow. Such a waste of time, but I’m glad for the ending,” she tweeted, along with three wine glass emojis.
With an all-male slate of candidates, a militant faction hopes to extend its control of Shasta County on June 7 and spread its uprising nationwide.
The election mailer was sent last month by a Grass Valley group called Americans for Good Government, whose website is devoted entirely to trying to discredit Adona.
State records show that one of the few donations the group has received was a $999 contribution last month from Robert Hren, chairman of the Nevada County Republican Party.
Hren did not respond to requests for comment.
The group also received $2,000 from attorney Barry Pruett, who represented the unmasked recall supporters who forced their way into the elections office.
Pruett — who unsuccessfully ran for clerk-recorder in 2010 — acknowledged his donation to Americans for Good Government and said he had been aware that the flier was being made. He said he provided the group with information about Adona to bolster its claims against her.
He said he thinks Adona is trying to create “a narrative” that election workers are being harassed, and he thinks “that’s bulls—.”
Asked about allegations that the flier is racist, Pruett laughed.
“Everything is racist nowadays,” he said. “She’s from D.C., the Democracy Fund. It just doesn’t fit with this community.”
In the county elections office Sunday, two days before the primary, a handful of staffers sorted and processed mailed-in ballots.
They sat in front of a large window installed about a month ago so members of the public can watch their work from the hallway. Their office also has four livestreaming cameras that anyone can view online.
People complain about a lack of transparency, Adona said. But few actually come to watch.
Early turnout in California’s primary was low before election day. But voters can still send or drop off mail ballots and vote in person.
Adona said that since she is running, she has not, and will not, process ballots and will not be in the tabulation room on election night.
“I am a little bit concerned about the well-being of my staff if I do win,” she acknowledged. “Because these folks may just say that I cheated.
“And even though the truth is on my side — something we have learned since 2020: There’s a difference between truth and perception.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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