Sonoma County elections chief reflects on tense, tireless work in 2020 contest

Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Deva Proto reflects on the 2020 general election, the yeoman’s job done by her team and the sudden villainization of poll workers.|

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.

The main impetus for the shift to voting centers was Sonoma County’s experience with weather events. In 2019, the Kincade fire erupted two weeks before a district election that included races in Occidental and Forestville. Most of west county evacuated, making the polling places there inaccessible. Power shut-offs were another concern. This year, PG&E gave a map to each of the counties it serves, showing all polling sites and rating their susceptibility to planned outages. Quite a few of Sonoma’s sites were vulnerable.

The urgency increased exponentially as the coronavirus pandemic wore on. This summer, local schools and senior centers began notifying Proto they could not open their properties to streams of voters.

“You can’t argue with that,” Proto said. “You want to support the election process, but we have to make sure we’re keeping a safe environment. We knew early on we wouldn’t be able to get the same number of polling places. That really changed everything.”

The vote-center model required greater coordination and an infusion of technology. Because any voter could use any center in the county, the registrar needed an electronic roster to ensure no one was voting twice. Each center had to accommodate all 122 versions of the Sonoma County ballot, capturing everything from a Cloverdale Unified School District election to the Petaluma City Council race.

“I was having nightmares about connectivity,” Proto said.

The rollout wasn’t perfect. As previously reported, 32 registered voters at 18 addresses received ballots for Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Trustees Area 3 when they should have been voting for Area 1. It was too late to mail reprints by the time the error was discovered, so Proto hand-delivered replacements.

All in all, though, the glitches were few and far between. Proto cited the “big group project” that made it possible, thanking everyone from her staff of 15 to the roving tech specialists who handled troubleshooting on Election Day to the 400-500 poll workers who ran the vote centers for a small stipend.

Proto said she didn’t take a day off for up to four weeks, putting in up to four hours of overtime a day, including weekends. Once in-person voting began Nov. 1, she was looking at solid 12-hour work days. Election Day was more like 19 hours.

“And I wasn’t alone in that,” Proto said.

On Tuesday, when she certified the local results, her satisfaction was tempered by what she saw in news reports. In battleground areas like Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix and Fulton County, Georgia, people swayed by Trump’s wild claims harassed, bullied and generally vilified the men and women hustling to make democracy happen.

It crushed Proto to witness images like the ones coming out of Detroit, where GOP poll challengers banged on vote center windows and circled election workers while chanting, “Stop the count!” It was easy for the registrar to imagine herself in their place.

“Seeing some of the things going on,” she said, “I feel so horribly for them. Because I can’t imagine the heartbreak I would feel if I did my absolute best, if I put all my energy into it, then people were threatening you, screaming at you, in some cases threatening your family. It’s horrible anyone would treat anybody that way, but for people I know are trying so hard to serve their community and make it better for people... It was hard.”

There was a degree of suspicion here, too. Some Sonoma County residents called Proto’s office before the election, spurred by false rumors they wouldn’t be allowed to vote in person. Others contacted the registrar after the fact, demanding Proto or one of her colleagues prove the authenticity of the election by confirming which bubbles they filled in. She had to remind them that California law requires ballots become untraceable back to the voter once they are removed from their envelopes.

Some were satisfied with her explanations. Some were not. Mostly, Proto believes local voters emerged from the 2020 election more confident in the process. If fact, she wonders if the suddenly intense focus on voting might wind up having a position effect.

“It actually gets people interested in the election process, where they wouldn’t even have paid attention before,” Proto said.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.