Sonoma County elections chief reflects on tense, tireless work in 2020 contest
The national uproar surrounding the voting process hit Sonoma County again the week before Election Day, when a woman phoned the Registrar of Voters Office to ask about her ballot. She had signed up for ballot tracking and had never received notification that her vote had been logged, though days had passed since she dropped off her envelope at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building.
Sonoma County Registrar Deva Marie Proto and her staff looked into it, but couldn’t find the ballot anywhere in their system. Would this become one of the many claims of irregularity, the vast majority of them unfounded, that were sweeping across our embattled nation?
The drama subsided when a gentleman went to open the flag collection box at the veterans building. It’s a place for residents to deposit old or damaged flags for proper, respectful disposal. Inside was a telltale blue envelope. The voter had seen a receptacle with an American flag on it, and had mistaken it for a ballot box. Case closed.
That was one snapshot of the historic 2020 election shared by Proto this week after she certified Sonoma County’s results.
Her overall assessment? “I think it went really well,” she said. “Especially when you consider all the challenges we were dealing with, all the changes we made, all the potential problems.”
Local election workers counted 272,244 ballots, an all-time record for the county. Final turnout, measured at 90.6% of eligible voters, fell just short of the November 2008 record of 93.4%.
Now Proto and her modest staff are finally able to breathe easy, and do their best to embrace the next task, with a pair of special elections already shaping up for March.
“It’s such a relief, but it’s hard because we’ve been running with this anxiety and adrenaline for months,” she said. “Now it’s hard to refocus.”
Proto is the elected official responsible for registering Sonoma County voters, maintaining registration rolls and conducting elections. But she is also the county’s clerk-recorder and assessor. Those offices merged with the registrar’s office in 2001.
After growing up in Forestville and earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sonoma State, she came up through the clerk-recorder’s office, putting in plenty of work on previous elections. Since being voted into her current post in 2018, she has grown accustomed to the seasonal rhythms of the job. Weddings usually make summer a busy time for the clerk-recorder. The assessor gets active after natural disasters such as wildfires.
2020, of course, had one dominant priority.
“This last year has been like all elections all the time,” Proto said.
It was destined to be, because of the acute polarization of the American populace and, especially, because of the sitting president’s views on voting. Donald Trump, sensing perhaps that a huge turnout would cement his defeat, waged a monthslong campaign to discredit the vote-by-mail process. In an age of social media-driven conspiracy paranoia, his strategy was effective enough to undermine confidence in election results.
Proto’s office had its own bruising encounter with that unchecked rumor mill when, in late September, a host on BlazeTV, a conservative news outlet, tweeted a photo showing hundreds of mail-in ballot envelopes in a dumpster at the Sonoma County landfill. The story blew up on the fringes of social media, even as Proto explained the envelopes had been used by county voters in 2018, and were simply being recycled after being stored for the requisite two years.
But the optics weren’t great and stamping out the misinformation took considerable effort by Proto and the county’s communications team.
“We have a lot of protections in place to make sure elections are conducted properly, and we’re always looking to make improvements, including with security of old election materials,” Proto said of that earlier incident. Disposal of used ballot envelopes will be handled in a more secure fashion from now on, she said.
The heightened tensions surrounding the 2020 general election added to the registrar’s already considerable hurdles.
Sonoma County had gone to a new state-of-the art tallying system in 2019, changing both the appearance of the ballots and the way they are counted. Proto was confident in the apparatus. It had successful runs in a couple of local elections and, during the March 2020 primaries, a countywide vote.
The bigger wild card was the pivot to an election that featured 30 vote centers for drop-off and in-person voting and 20 drop box locations. Gone were the traditional 150 to 175 polling places, though a majority of the county’s voters have long cast their ballots by mail — and this year all were given the chance to under the state’s switch to all-mail ballot election.
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