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Sonoma County elections material from 2018 found in dumpster, not ballots

The images spread rapidly on conservative websites and social media feeds Friday: photos showing hundreds of envelopes used by voters to return mail-in ballots discarded in a dumpster at the Sonoma County landfill.

Was it proof of the “rigged” election and voting fraud that President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, will result from the use of mail-in ballots?

A provocative tweet from the host of a show on BlazeTV, a conservative news outlet, claiming they were actual ballots dumped in the trash set off a search for answers Friday by internet sleuths and a furious debate online about what, if anything, the images proved.

No, they were not ballots, said Deva Marie Proto, the county’s registrar of voters. In fact, the county will not send out mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election for another nine days.

But the pale blue envelopes in photos taken at the Sonoma County Central Landfill on Mecham Road were used by Sonoma County voters — nearly two years ago, to return mail-in ballots in the November 2018 election, Proto said. The empty envelopes were finally sent for recycling this week.

“It was our stuff,” Proto said.

State law requires elections materials to be retained for 22 months, and Proto said it has been her office’s practice to dispose of them at the end of that period.

Proto acknowledged, however, that the photos were “bad optics,” and said that return mail envelopes will be shredded in the future and all other elections material — such as voter guides and unused ballots — will be buried immediately at the landfill.

The original tweet posted Thursday night from the account of Elijah Schaffer, a host on BlazeTV, sparked vigorous speculation on Twitter that quickly spread to other websites Friday.

BlazeTV is a conservative media outlet that provides “news & entertainment for people who love America” and features conservative mainstays Glen Beck, Mark Levin and Phil Robertson, a hunter and businessman best known for his starring role on “Duck Dynasty.”

“SHOCKING: 1,000+ mail-in ballots found in a dumpster in California,” Schaffer’s tweet declared, accompanied by three photos that he said were emailed to him by a person who was not identified. They were “allegedly discovered in the Republic Services of Sonoma County central landfill,” he added.

The tweet noted the ZIP code 94928 on the alleged ballots “matches the county.” It is the ZIP code for Rohnert Park.

“These are original photos sent to me. Big if true,” Schaffer said.

By the end of the day Friday, Twitter had removed the tweet for violating the rules of the social media site. But the news had already spread.

“Landfill workers in California hide tens of thousands of discarded ballots” screamed the headline on one conservative news site. At least two other news sites picked up the story, which ignited a vigorous debate on Reddit about the authenticity of the images.

A post on Redditt showed a photo of the materials with the headline: “Petaluma, CA man finds thousands of ballots in dumpster at Republic Services of Sonoma County, Inc. Central Landill. Workers try and cover up evidence of ballots with (sic) carboard.”

One man, who identified himself as an “independent journalist,” went to the landfill to question Republic Services about the discovery. In a video posted to Twitter, an unidentified employee told him that “customers were upset” by the sight of the materials.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate to dispose of them this way,” the woman said.

A “garbage contractor” was summoned to put the materials in a box “so they wouldn’t blow away and get loose,” she said.

Proto dismissed reports that her office had reclaimed the materials and said landfill workers had given them to Recology, the county’s waste hauler, for recycling. “That’s what was supposed to happen,” she said.

Efforts to contact Republic Services and Recology were not immediately successful.

The online uproar comes as Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting is an invitation to fraud, and asserted he will not accept the results of the Nov. 3 election if he loses.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decree in May made California one of nine states, plus the District of Columbia, mailing ballots to every voter, while 34 states are allowing voting by mail, according to the the New York Times.

Ballots will, in fact, be mailed starting Oct. 5 to the 292,763 registered voters in Sonoma County. Mailed ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day, and can be received in the registrar’s office up to 17 days after the election.

Voters have the option of returning their ballots to 20 secure 24-hour drop boxes at public buildings from Oct. 6 through Election Day or one of 30 voting locations that will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.

These sites will replace up to 150 polling places operated during previous elections.

“Voting by mail is very safe,” Proto said, noting that many county voters have voted by mail for years.

In Sonoma County, 82.5% of registered voters are permanent mail-in voters.

“We have lots of security checks and processes in place to ensure ballots are processed accurately,” the registrar said. “We encourage voters to vote early and vote safe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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