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With one key exception, coronavirus upends political life in Sonoma County

About five employees with the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters sat in separate cubicles this past week, churning through registration and ballot paperwork during a last push to wrap up election results from the beginning of the month.

The March 3 election, which featured a historic upset in the 3rd District supervisor race - the results were certified Friday - was little more than three weeks ago.

But the whirlwind of a deadly global pandemic, and the whiplash set in motion by government efforts to staunch its spread, have effectively carved off the present from almost anything in the recent past.

So the scene of dutiful clerks - without masks or gloves - continuing to process ballots Thursday in their quiet cubicles proved an especially jarring contrast with the frenetic activity of the county’s Emergency Operations Center just two blocks away. There, staff members were scouring the region to find hundreds of extra hospital rooms and delegating duties to a “mass fatality” task force, among other steps.

“Elections has to be on site because of all of the ballots,” said Deva Proto, the county’s clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters. “It’s less staff, because we have a number of people out. But everything has to be done on site.”

The regular routine proved an extraordinary exception, however, with most other work geared toward pending elections and politics halted amid the statewide shelter-in-place order meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Citizen-led petition drives have stalled, candidate announcements for political office have been delayed and a proposed sales tax extension geared to road, highway and transit upgrades in Sonoma County appears parked for at least another year due to the pandemic and accompanying economic crash.

“Everything is frozen in place, whether you’re talking about the Democratic presidential race, whether you’re talking about going to the ballot in November, running for city council,” said David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University. “All of that has been put on hold, and it’s been put on hold indefinitely.”

Jerry Threet, the former director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, suspended signature-gathering operations for a ballot measure he and other advocates are seeking to bolster the funding and power of his former office, which serves as a watchdog over the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“People were afraid of the virus, and so they were refusing to even talk (to signature gatherers),” he said. “And those who would talk wouldn’t touch the pens and paper.”

Threet said he planned four major fundraisers to collect money to pay his signature gatherers, and those fell apart because “people wouldn’t come to those.”

He sees only a few ways forward for such efforts: government action to extend signature-gathering deadlines or allow electronic signature gathering, or a decision by the county Board of Supervisors to use its authority to put his measure and others in front of voters.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the lone board member to endorse Threet’s proposed initiative, wouldn’t commit to voting to put it on the ballot. She pointed to other measures competing for a place on the November ballot, including one seeking a streamlined process for cannabis permitting and a labor-led effort to fund housing development through a tax on big business.

“How do you open up the path forward without it becoming a complete free-for-all?” Hopkins said. “This is a messy one … I do think we need to come up with some way to address this loss of a democratic process.”

In other political arenas, including forthcoming city council races, ?campaigns have been put on pause or their principals are rethinking strategies entirely.

Dan Mullen, the campaign consultant who helped former Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey unseat 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane in this election,­ said the coronavirus pandemic may permanently change the way campaigns are run.

“No matter what industry, no matter what sector it is, any time there’s a crisis like this, it accelerates change,” Mullen said, pointing to increased use of online resources for campaigning.

Mullen said he has two candidates for Santa Rosa City Council who have shelved their campaigns. He says there won’t be door-knocking efforts before there’s a vaccine available - it could be a year away, according to some in the field - and any traditional, press-the-flesh fundraisers are likely off the table for the foreseeable future.

“How do we fundraise online when there’s no in-person connection at the end of that runway? That’s the type of stuff that I’m thinking about right now,” Mullen said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt is a board member on the countywide transportation authority, which had been wrestling even before the pandemic crisis over whether to ask voters for a sales tax extension in November to support future road and transit projects.

But too many variables exist to make such a decision at this point, he said.

The transportation authority was already skeptical about the prospects for a Measure M extension after other tax proposals locally and throughout California took a beating in March, Rabbitt said. After those defeats, the transportation board had what he described as a “dour” meeting.

“There was a bit of a feeling that we’d have to be careful,” he said. But now, “we have to be beyond careful. It has to be dire circumstances to go back to voters and ask them to pass something.”

The lone upshot in Measure M’s favor? The quarter-cent sales tax that largely went toward widening Highway 101 doesn’t expire until 2025, giving the transportation authority time to wait out at least some of the economic upheaval.

Back at the county election office Thursday, there was scant evidence of the turmoil that has otherwise upended life.

Some work stations thought to be too close for proper social distancing had been rearranged. And fewer people were on the clock as a precaution under the state’s home isolation order.

But none of the employees were wearing gloves or masks. Proto suggested that was because the ballots have existed in their own type of quarantine for weeks.

“I don’t think the ballots have been around other people since March 3,” she said.

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