Just before Thanksgiving Day, the Riverside County voter register received a post-election surprise: the local district attorney took custody of 91 ballots for weeks, and his review would not end before certification of the results of 3 from November.
“It was very worrying,” said voter secretary Rebecca Spencer. “It was the first time I heard about all of this.”
Voting is still in progress by Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin, more than three months later, the standoff was just the latest in a series of bitter feuds between the two Riverside agencies in the past four years. Spencer, whose work in responding to Hestrin’s investigations was widely supported by the Riverside County council office, recently hired his own lawyer because of what she said was his concerns about Hestrin and other high-ranking Republicans.
“I feel that there are party policies, party agendas, that are trying to be pushed into the voters’ office,” said Spencer, who is registered with no party preference.
Hestrin, a Republican who was elected district attorney in 2014, forwarded questions from The Times to his investigators, who said that all their efforts begin with public complaints. The district attorney attacked Spencer in a February 5 letter to county officials for using “inflamed rhetoric” and making “baseless allegations” about his office’s work.
“It is indefensible that [Spencer] I would argue that citizens’ complaints about their policies or practices are a party attack per se, or that our legal efforts to investigate them are overkill, “wrote Hestrin.
The latest conflict began when members of the East Valley Republican Women Federated, a Republican Party group that led a vote-gathering effort in Riverside County during the fall campaign season, gave 91 ballots on election day to a working investigator. for Hestrin.
Joy Miedecke, the group’s president, said some local voters said the ballots were copies they had mistakenly received in the mail. She said she did not consider notifying the voter register.
“For us, the best thing to do was to hand them over to the prosecutor’s office,” said Miedecke, calling Hestrin “someone we trust.”
Spencer said he is not sure whether all the bills are duplicates. His office was not allowed to inspect the original ballots, only copies. Of those reviewed by election officials, she said that five appear to have been sent to voters who did not participate in the November 3 election – a finding that Spencer said requires further review to ensure that county residents are not entitled to vote. denied. A spokesman for Hestrin disputes any problems for these voters, saying on Wednesday that investigators had contacted them and confirmed that they had issued different ballots sent to them.
One ballot, Spencer said, appears to have been filled out, but a second ballot – with a different spelling of the voter’s last name – was counted. Since the county uses a barcode system to track ballots sent by mail, she said, only one vote would have been counted if both had been returned to her office.
Joe DelGiudice, chief investigator for the district attorney, said earlier this month that there was no evidence of electoral fraud.
“We are not seeing any smoking weapons,” he said.
Spencer took several of his complaints about the district attorney’s office to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. E-mails and letters reviewed by The Times show a variety of disputes over the past two years over electoral operations. Hestrin, along with other county officials and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), sent long lists of questions about how the registrar views California’s polling law, which allows anyone to hand over multiple ballots and has been often criticized by Republicans for allowing what they call a “vote harvest”.
In an instance in 2019, Hestrin asked Spencer for copies of the envelopes of all absentee ballots released in the previous seven years. The Riverside County attorney told Hestrin that state law requires that documents signed by the voter be kept confidential.
In another discussion of the vote-gathering efforts – which Hestrin, in letters reviewed by The Times, deemed necessary further oversight by the registrar – Spencer said the district attorney’s office suggested that she should take extraordinary steps to discover the identity of those who hand out ballot papers, including suggesting last January that officials could follow people to the parking lot to write down license plate numbers.
In May, Spencer said, she was instructed by a high-ranking county official to remove two permanent ballot boxes outside county election offices due to security risks. She declined, insisting that the boxes were no less secure than a mailbox and that this would unfairly limit voting options for county residents.
“It crossed the line for me,” she said.
Representatives of the district attorney’s office said that while they have responded to a variety of complaints related to the elections in the past six years, very few cases have been prosecuted because they believe the problems stem from the voter registration office’s operations.
As for the 91 ballots that have been held for more than three months, DelGiudice said the investigators saw no urgent need to examine them during the period when legitimate ballots were being counted.
“There was nothing related to this investigation that was sensitive to time,” he said.
Spencer, who was an election official for 15 years before being appointed registrar in 2014, said she has yet to hear a clear reason why the ballots remain in the custody of Hestrin’s investigators, who told The Times that the document review is not complete. .
“I found no evidence of fraud or any [voting] irregularities that have no valid explanations behind them, “she said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.