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By C. Jayden Smith
Councilmember Steve Knoblock’s attempt for the city to persuade the California State Legislature to improve election security was voted down, 3-2, by the San Clemente City Council this week.
Knoblock and Councilmember Laura Ferguson on Tuesday, Aug. 16, voted in favor of passing the resolution that meant to “enhance the confidence of the voting public in election outcomes” through adding a series of measures to the California Election Code, such as voter identification requirements.
“My recommendation is a safe, fair election, where people vote with a ballot that’s identifiable, and that people who are legally entitled to vote get to vote,” Knoblock said. “It’s not political, it’s not cheap political tricks, it’s not theatrics, it’s the essence of our democracy.”
Mayor Gene James, Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan and Councilmember Kathy Ward delivered the dissenting votes against the resolution. Duncan, along with Ward, believed the issue of election laws should not be addressed by the council.
“Let’s defeat this tonight and get back to city business that we were elected to do,” Duncan said.
The failed resolution claimed that the use of ballot drop boxes “creates a higher level of risk for voter fraud”—a similar refrain commonly used by staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump to back his unfounded claims of mass voter fraud.
It went on to implore legislators to adopt five measures to “restore and maintain” the public’s faith in the election process such as requiring voters to provide a valid form of photo identification or submit an affidavit of proof that they are the person on the registration rolls.
The other measures recommended included the removal of inactive voters from voter rolls prior to the immediate next election, prohibiting unsupervised ballot drop boxes, enhancing the chain of custody process for vote by mail, and performing post-election audits.
“Orange County elections are accessible, fair, accurate, secure, and transparent,” Bob Page, the Orange County Registrar of Voters said in an email to San Clemente Times on Thursday, Aug. 18. “All options available to voters to cast a ballot are secure.”
The county in 2020 began to utilize the vote-by-mail system as allowed under the California Voter’s Choice Act. Registered voters receive their ballots in the mail and have a few options to cast their votes: return the ballot through the mail, hand deliver it to a vote center, place in a drop box or complete a ballot in person at a vote center.
Although declining to take a policy position about proposed changes to statutory voting requirements, Page talked about the safety of elections without requiring voter identification and supervising all ballot drop boxes in use.
According to Page, the Registrar’s office maintains and updates voter registration files on a daily basis. Using official statewide entities as sources, the Registrar has completed an average of nearly 49,000 record updates each month in 2022, of which the number is expected to increase significantly in advance of this November’s General Election.
Regarding the chain of custody for mail-in ballots, the Registrar uses two-person employee teams to transport and record the steps of the ballot collection process on a form. Each mail ballot return envelope is printed with a unique voter ballot identification number in a barcode to be tracked through the U.S. Postal Service.
In the 2018 statewide General Election, 1,106,729 ballots were cast in Orange County, and 1,546,570 were submitted in the 2020 General Election, per the election results archives listed on the county’s Registrar of Voters website.
Page said that his office referred 294 voters and 18 voters in 2018 and 2020, respectively, to the Orange County District Attorney’s office for investigation of attempting to vote twice.
He added that he was “completely confident” in the county’s voting system and how his team works to protect the integrity of elections.
The team controls physical access to election equipment, of which the equipment used to mark and count ballots is not connected to the internet. The team also used numerous procedures to ensure equipment and software has not been tampered.
“We conduct several audits and tests before and after the election to ensure the system accurately counts the votes on the ballots,” Page wrote. “We work with federal, state, and local partners, including CISA (the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency), to regularly assess our system protections and to mitigate potential risks.”
Before elections, the office confirms the correct voting system software version with the California Secretary of State and feeds test ballots through each scanner to ensure votes are accurately counted.
After an election, the Registrar randomly selects ballots from at least 1% of precincts to hand count and compare against the voting system tally, and conduct a Risk Limiting Ballot Comparison Audit, in which ballots are randomly selected by state-approved audit software.
Public commenters on both sides of the issue expressed their support or opposition, as more than 15 people came up to speak Tuesday night, including council candidates Donna Vidrine and Mark Enmeier.
Resident Lisa Hazelton spoke in favor of the resolution and its “indisputably sound” requests, encouraged in-person voting, and hoped that other cities would follow San Clemente’s lead if adopted.
“As Samuel Adams, one of our founding fathers, once said, ‘It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men,” Hazelton said. “Let us be your irate, tireless minority.’”
Louise Herbert, who spoke on behalf of the Democratic Women of South Orange County for which she serves as a board member, decried the council straying away from city business to address the “ridiculous” resolution.
“The so-called need to strengthen the existing California election process is just another ploy for our citizens and city councilmembers to lose sight of the needs of our community,” Herbert said. “This is a solution in search of a problem, since there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.”
Enmeier asserted that Knoblock and James—who had supported Knoblock’s July 19 motion to agendize the discussion over the resolution—were attempting to turn San Clemente into a “partisan political petri dish,” and asked for the division of the city to stop.
He further cited information reported by multiple media outlets and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that relayed the lack of systemic voter fraud and the security of the 2020 election.
Enmeier claimed Knoblock and James had been affected by conspiracy theories to where they could no longer discern what was truth, that they were grandstanding for their base for political gain and attempting to suppress minority communities. He implored them to stop their negative actions.
One speaker, who identified himself as “Mike,” said the left-leaning speakers of the night did not address what he felt was the true aim of the resolution, instead directing their comments to whether election fraud existed and whether voter rights were being suppressed.
“It’s not that the left is concerned about voter integrity,” he said. “The point of the whole thing, this measure, is that the people on the right don’t feel comfortable with the direction of our voting system.”
With the majority of San Clemente voting for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections and identifying as Republican, the speaker felt the resolution was necessary to ease the population’s concerns and establish that work is being done to increase confidence in elections going forward.
FREE & FAIR
Knoblock said nothing was more important in a society than fair, free, and accurate elections, and that the issue of elections was no different than other issues the City Council weighs in on and communicates with the state legislature about.
He felt implementing voter identification laws was not a complicated concept, referencing numerous everyday activities in which people must prove who they are, such as cashing a check or boarding an airplane.
He also questioned why voters don’t have to provide any evidence, given the decisions they make in electing the government that has such an impact on day-to-day life.
Knoblock claimed that as many as 30 million illegal votes were casted in 2020, although several media outlets such as PolitiFact and USA Today have debunked varying allegations of millions of illegal votes.
He went on to call out terms used by some public commenters as tactics “the left” uses to stay in power, which included employing pointed terms such as “dog whistle” or “political trick,” or referring to what he felt were reasonable restrictions as racist.
Prominent issues such as having free elections, in which one side supports the concept and the other wants everyone to be able to vote even if not legally entitled, or abortions, in which the sides are either for life or death, will naturally be divisive, according to Knoblock.
“‘You’re hurting people, you’re a racist, you’re distracting from the real important issues,’” he said quoting criticism he’s heard. “Nonsense. There’s nothing more important than this issue. That’s why I brought it up.”
Knoblock said it was inaccurate to claim that there was not election fraud, and referenced an advisory sent to state election officials by CISA in May.
CISA said nine software vulnerabilities in equipment produced by Dominion Voting Systems, which is used by at least 16 states, leave upcoming votes susceptible to hacking if unaddressed, according to the Associated Press.
California is one of the states that use the Dominion Voting Systems’ ImageCast X, an accessible touchscreen machine and ballot-marking device, and the ImageCast Evolution, which tabulates votes by scanning marked paper ballots.
Orange County does not use Dominion, according to Page, and uses the Hart InterCivic, Inc.’s Hart Verity Voting 3.1 system.
Both CISA and J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist that wrote the report on which the advisory was based, said there was no evidence that the Dominion systems were exploited to alter the 2020 presidential election results. However, the advisory urged states to address the vulnerabilities that could be taken advantage of by sophisticated hackers.
Ferguson on Tuesday said that the implementation of voter identification regulations and cleaning up voter rolls were important measures that factored into her support of the resolution.
She recalled her time working at voting centers during a statewide primary, and the benefits of people bringing in photo IDs that sped up the process even though they weren’t required.
Ward stated that entities such as the California Secretary of State’s office were responsible for handling elections, and that the back and forth between opposing public commenters was the direct, negative result of the council addressing the resolution.
Though she said she understood both sides of the arguments, it amounted to an hour’s worth of time related to a matter the city did not need to address.
“We should vote this down, and we should stop doing resolutions on things that we have no purview to do,” Ward said.
The erosion of public trust in the election system could be attributed to public figures of authority using a false narrative of election fraud as a matter of seeking personal gain, to the detriment of the rest of society, Duncan said.
“The largest segment of people are not people who vote as Republicans and people who vote as Democrats, it’s people who don’t vote at all,” he said. “We don’t have too many people voting, we don’t have enough people voting.”
He added that resolutions such as Knoblock’s serve to drive down an already-low voter turnout in comparison to other countries, as the celebrated 67% rate of the voting-age population during the 2020 presidential election lagged behind Turkey’s 89% turnout in 2018 and Israel’s 78% in 2020.
James, while scorning the “cheap” comments made by some speakers during the agenda item, called the Registrar the “gold standard of election officials” and said that no person has established that voter fraud is a significant issue.
“I arrived here tonight, determined I wasn’t going to support this measure,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to vote for this tonight, but I can’t say I was really impressed with a lot (of what I heard) from you all.”
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.