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Essential Politics: California’s elections official exodus

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This is the April 12, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

If all politics is truly local, it should be huge news when someone like Kammi Foote decides enough is enough.

As the registrar of voters for Inyo County, Foote spent 14 years on democracy’s front lines in a job that is equal parts educator and administrator. California gives wide latitude to its 58 counties in how to run elections, and a corps of veteran registrars call the shots across the state.

But something has changed. Registrars with decades of experience are calling it quits, stymied by the ever-growing list of election mandates that come without the funding to make them a reality — made worse by the personal and professional threats made by voters amped up on partisan rage and destructive conspiracy theories.

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Now, months before a likely recall election followed by the 2022 campaign season where political maps will be redrawn and voters will need help navigating the changes, California finds itself in the midst of an election officer exodus.

‘Worn down and tired’

Foote stepped down Friday as Inyo’s chief elections officer, the eighth registrar across California to resign since last November’s election. At least one more registrar is expected to resign in the coming weeks. Some have been on the job for almost three decades.

“I think, if anything, it’s just a sense of being worn down and tired,” Foote said about her decision to leave. “In 2020, we found ourselves working seven days a week, months on end, under tremendous pressure.”

Conducting a presidential election during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy. State leaders required every registered voter to be sent a ballot in the mail, and for those voters who participated in person, there were detailed public health requirements that necessitated new and extensive training for poll workers.

Foote, who has accepted a job with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, contracted COVID-19 just after the primary last March and had to finish tallying votes while sick at home.

While she said the decision to leave was about more than just the challenges of running elections in California, other registrars and voting advocates said the exodus of so many skilled leaders should serve as a warning.

“We have all lived through the pandemic, of course, but folks administering elections are under even more stress because of the lies that spread like mad before and especially after election day in November,” said Cathy Darling Allen, the registrar of voters in Shasta County who has kept a tally of all of her counterparts who have left. “Sincerely, I was called a liar more times over the two-month period around the election than in my entire life.”

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Gail Pellerin, who retired as Santa Cruz County’s registrar of voters in December, said it’s the voters who keep elections officials going for so long.

“Many of us have left the profession after 2020 but our passion for voters’ rights is eternal,” she said. “The integrity of our elections is something we all will fight to defend, no matter what path our lives have taken.”

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said her organization is involved in a research study examining harassment of elections officials during the 2020 campaign season. She has also spent years advocating for California lawmakers to fully fund the election mandates they enact — many of which keep adding to the work done by registrars whose resources are stretched thin.

“I think we need to sound the alarm” with the registrars leaving, Alexander said. “I’m worried because it’s a thankless job and we really take the people who do it for granted.”

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For starters, most California counties bundle the job of running elections with the duties of a clerk and recorder. Handling marriage and death certificates, property maps and business documents can make a focus on elections hard to muster. Difficult, too, is that some registrars aren’t elected but instead appointed — answering to county supervisors as much as voters.

“If small counties lose a registrar, that’s a huge loss,” Alexander said. “They don’t necessarily have a deep bench.”

Elections may be conducted in even-numbered years, but it’s the odd-numbered years where all of the behind-the-scenes work really gets done. But 2021 is complicating that process, as registrars scramble to verify some 2.1 million signatures submitted on petitions to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom while also doing a full check of signatures on ballot initiatives pertaining to sports betting and single-use plastic products.

And on the recall: What will it take for the state to provide the roughly $70 million or more it will cost for that election?

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Foote, who pointed out that more than half of Inyo County’s election last November was paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds, said she hopes those who follow in her footsteps will get the resources they need to ensure voters — to counter the accusations and cool the anger — that elections are being run properly.

“Under this kind of scrutiny, it’s just going to be super important that elections are well resourced,” she said.

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National lightning round

— Citing protection of religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted another of California’s COVID-19 restrictions Friday, holding the state may not prevent people from gathering in homes for Bible study and prayer meetings.

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— Biden has ordered a study of adding seats to the Supreme Court, creating a commission that will examine expanding the court and instituting term limits for its justices.

— The House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation of Rep. Matt Gaetz, citing reports of sexual and other misconduct by the Florida Republican.

— Former President Trump veered sharply from prepared remarks at a GOP event Saturday night and instead slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as a “stone-cold loser” and mocked McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who was Trump’s Transportation secretary.

— Since Trump was barred from major social media channels, his power to shape the national conversation has been tested.

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— “Clear the Capitol,” then-Vice President Mike Pence pleaded, a timeline of the Capitol riot obtained by the Associated Press shows.

— Fueled by an influx of hard-right lawmakers echoing Trump and the backing of outside groups, Republican-dominated legislatures are pushing the bounds in already deeply GOP states on issues such as gun rights, access to abortions and protections for transgender people.

— The Republican Party’s bond with corporate America is fraying. That extends an opportunity to Biden and congressional Democrats.

Today’s essential California politics

— After the worst fire season in California history and as drought conditions raise fears of what’s to come, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders have agreed on a $536-million proposal to boost efforts at firefighting and a variety of prevention measures, including vegetation management and the construction of fire-resistant structures across the state.

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— With so many of Newsom’s pandemic response decisions sharply criticized, there’s a good chance that his action to fully reopen California by June 15 may be one of the safest choices he’s made yet.

— It’s suddenly feeling a bit like 2003 all over again. If Arnold Schwarzenegger could win a recall election to become governor of California, then could Caitlyn Jenner follow the same path nearly two decades later?

— Citing recent mass shootings in Orange; Boulder, Colo.; and the Atlanta area, state lawmakers last week advanced a proposal for a new tax on the sale of guns and ammunition in California to boost funding for violence prevention programs.

— A score of legislators have signed on to a new bill designed to offer Golden State households free financial services, taking on powerful banks at a time when the change could help families cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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— A British tabloid and a conservative journalist did not violate California’s revenge-porn law by publishing intimate pictures of then-Rep. Katie Hill without her consent, a judge ruled twice last week.

— George Skelton notes the passing of Jim Mills, the former state Senate leader whom he calls “a bridge between two legislative eras”: one of collaboration but corruption and recent years where lawmakers have been “perhaps more ethical but politically polarized and largely unable to compromise.”

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