Inside a Recount: Secrets of the Registrar of Voters
By: Justin Schlaefli
I had the privilege of being an official observer in the recent recount for the Santee City Council, District 4 race. Upon certification on December 3, Dustin Trotter was determined to be the winner of the City Council contest with a five vote lead out of 7,835 total votes. In a case of the shoe being on the other foot, the Democrat Party decided to request a recount which commenced on Monday, December 14. All of a sudden, Santee’s council race was the most interesting election related news in San Diego County. What transpired taught me a lot about our electoral system and the integrity (or lack) of our voting system. For those who geek out on such things, I will share my observations below.
Recount in the age of Covid
Upon arriving at the Registrar of Voters (RoV) in Kearny Mesa for my shift, I was impressed by how professional the staff were. They were helpful, polite and professional. The process of a recount can be opaque and intimidating. I had read several pages of rules and there had been more than one briefing before the recount process started. Add to that, the unique circumstances of Covid and the whole scene took on the elements of the absurd. I absolutely appreciate the precautions taken to keep everyone safe. The RoV did a great job creating a maze of plexiglass and taped off areas so that everything was organized and safe. Not only is the building a secure facility but the RoV did a surprisingly good job of following protocol while encouraging transparency (literally with all the plexiglass) and cleanliness.
What was clear the entire time was how seriously Michael Vu and his staff take their responsibilities. While ensuring that media, observers and representatives of each Party and campaign had full access to the recount and could see each ballot, the Registrar was careful to protect the integrity and health of his staff. Very impressive first impression.
Recount room at the RoV
Role of the Parties
The role of the Republican and Democrat Parties in the recount was interesting. Santee has a campaign contribution limit of $700. Parties are not allowed to contribute directly to campaigns. The cost of a recount is startlingly high even for small races. I have heard varying estimates anywhere from $15,000-$40,000 with the organization requesting the recount being responsible for the cost. In this case, a letter requesting the recount from Democrat Party Chair, stated, “I do this on behalf of (but not at the request or suggestion of) candidate Samm Hurst.” Interesting phrasing if I do say so myself. Is it believable that no conversations regarding a recount were had? Perhaps. Everyone has to follow the law so I understand why the phrase was inserted in the letter.
Nonetheless, the Democrat Party brought several paid staff and operatives to observe and participate in the recount. Observers were there to watch everything and to object to anything in the count which seemed unusual. Representatives of the Democrat Party objected to numerous ballots which were not counted for various reasons (missing postmark or signature mismatch). The most shocking to me were the convoluted arguments the Democrat Party came up with in an attempt to have improperly filled out or submitted ballots included. It makes sense but from my vantage in the room for the adjudication, the signatures on the envelope were not even close matches to the signatures on the registration forms on file at the Registrar. Not even close… nonetheless, Michael Vu was scrupulously fair in adjudicating the objections. There were times he said, “I just don’t see it,” and there were others where he accepted clearly mis-matching signatures if there was ANY similarity which could be found… and I mean ANY SMALL THING. I doubt I would have been so generous but truly believe the Registrar would rather err on the side of caution in having all legal votes counted. I think that is a good quality for a Registrar.
For the Republican Party, no paid staff were there but several Santee residents and business owners were able to make it and there was good representation. The contrast between the Democrat’s expensive/paid operation and the Republican volunteers was stark. Multiple members of the Republican team had to take time off of work to be there. Other Republican volunteers were retired seniors. Draw what conclusion from that you want. I drew several of my own conclusions.
Integrity of the Vote
While going through the recount process, I was very impressed by the steps taken to ensure integrity in the vote here in San Diego County. Again, I observed a stark contrast in how things were handled locally versus what I have seen and read elsewhere in the nation. Ballots were marked, counted, recounted and verified in a multi-step process with checks and balances the whole way. There were cameras recording everything. Each step had redundancy built in. There is probably no way that once a ballot reaches the RoV in San Diego that there could be any significant mis-count or fraud. The recount process was impressive to say the least from a simple accounting perspective. That may explain why both parties and campaigns came away after one day of the recount satisfied and why the recount wasn’t finished. Dustin Trotter said, “What I learned is that the Registrar does an amazing job. Going through this process just solidifies the work by Vu and his staff.” Democrat Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy said, “We are pretty confident the ROV and staff did not get this wrong.” As an observer, I am also confident that the RoV got this one right.
Not only was the count handled impeccably but the adjudication was as fair as could be expected. It is ironic that after the Democrat Party objected to several ballots not being counted and even won the adjudication of several, that the vote margin didn’t change. The three extra ballots which were opened and counted ended up with one vote for Hurst, one vote for Trotter and one undervote (no vote in this race). A fourth ballot which was initially challenged so that it would be counted subsequently had that challenge rescinded. Then, after both campaigns and parties agreed the ballot shouldn’t be included, the Registrar surprised everybody by quoting an obscure regulation change which allowed for the ballot to be counted anyway! Michael Vu’s knowledge of election law and regulations was impressive. I am sure he isn’t always correct but he did earn my respect.
Are you telling me there is no way to cheat?
A friend asked me whether I thought there was cheating in the campaign. Having just said above that I believe the RoV handled things with the utmost integrity, I did see plenty of cheating in this campaign. For example, Samm Hurst solicited and collected illegal campaign contributions from Democrat affiliated groups (organizational contributions are illegal in Santee). I saw illegal signage and plenty of evidence of illegal coordination all over Santee. There were plenty of unfounded and flat-out incorrect statements made about Dustin Trotter. There were Democrat Party group meetings where bona-fide Democrat Santee residents were thrown out. There were plenty of other issues as well. Some of these are still under investigation.
This is the second cycle in a row where the Democrat Party candidate moved into the district very shortly before deciding to run for office. There are plenty of other ways to cheat in an election. This includes ballot harvesting and others. I was surprised to hear the Democrat Party complain about registering to vote at the DMV because the voter registration information was incorrect or lacking. I imagine this doesn’t come as a surprise to many Republicans. Some of these things are accepted and others are actually illegal but often winked at.
Clearly, something went right this election in Santee. Just as clearly, we have some larger issues about integrity of our voting system nationwide. If we want to get serious about election integrity, it starts with demanding more out of our candidates. We must also demand more out of our parties and we must demand more out of ourselves. Voting is one of our most fundamental rights. The integrity of our system is at stake. We must be informed and involved to maintain a healthy republic. I was proud to have participated in the recount. It restored some of my faith in the system and gave me time to reflect on many of the things we have wrong. We have a wonderful country and we owe it to ourselves to get this right.
About the Author: Justin Schlaefli and his family are residents of East County living in the City of Santee. Justin is a small business owner and graduate of SDSU. He is also a proud member of the Republican Party.