Local election observers file formal complaint
Observing: Easier Said Than Done
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal where this extensive report first ran.)
Three Mendocino County residents are deeply troubled by the treatment they received while observing post-election ballot counting at the County Clerk/Registrar’s office in Ukiah. Their experience prompted them to file a formal complaint with the California Secretary of State’s Office.
County elections activities fall under the auspices of Assessor/Clerk-Recorder Susan Ranochak, who also acts as the County’s Registrar of Voters. Ranochak was appointed in January 2008 to serve the remaining three years of a four-year term vacated by her predecessor, Marsha Wharff. She ran unopposed in 2010. Ranochak has worked for the county for over 30 years. She was re-elected to her position in 2014, and as her job title suggests, administers a multiplicity of programs serving Mendocino County citizens.
Deborah Moore is a Ukiah resident, a teacher and owner of Take Wing Tutoring. Aleshanee Akin, also from Ukiah is a published author and teacher. Cynthia Raiser Jeavons, a Willits resident is a non-profit advisor and serves on several non-profit boards.
The three women were not acquainted prior to meeting at the Clerk-Recorder’s office to observe post-election activities. They emphasized they were not professionally affiliated with a political campaign and had no prior experience as voter observers.
The observers reported to Journal staff a series of events that transpired over a two-week period while they were viewing the processing and tallying of ballots cast during the June primary election.
Their allegations include witnessing inconsistent practices with regard to ballot counting procedures, the promulgation of a “hostile” office environment toward voter observers and what the they characterize as either a display of abject ignorance, or a calculated effort to employ narrow-cast, questionable interpretations of California State election law — laws that unambiguously uphold the rights of California voters to observe nearly every aspect of pre-and post-election activities.
For this story, we interviewed the three observers and contacted local political activists, current and former county employees, members of the League of Women Voters, members of the Mendocino County Grand Jury and Ms. Ranochak. Staff also posed specific questions to the California Secretary of State’s Office to confirm our understanding of the State’s Election Code.
RULES OF THE GAME
Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office provided the Journal with County Clerk/Registrar of Voters Memorandum #16140 — the 2016 Election Observation Rights and Responsibilities document used by California Voter Registrars. The document elucidates the overarching guidelines and redundant protections for elections staff and the public, simultaneously ensuring the integrity of the vote count while providing transparency throughout the election process.
A post-election “canvass,” encompasses numerous activities, including the processing, counting and recording of precinct ballots, “vote-by-mail” and provisional ballots. State law clearly delineates that the canvass is open to the public, per State Elections Code 15104. From the literal creation of ballots to their sealing and final disposition in the vault, California State law stipulates that “the count shall be public and shall be continued without adjournment until completed and the result is declared. During the reading and tallying, the ballot read and the tally sheet kept shall be within the clear view of watchers.” (Elections Code sec.15272).
Many counties clarify State guidelines by adopting local observer standards. Along with reviewing the California Elections Code and the Observation Rights and Responsibilities document, we studied observer guidelines drafted by eight other California counties to determine how other county registrars interpret election law in their jurisdictions — with the presumption that county-appointed attorneys have approved the contents contained in those documents.
Observers? What Observers?
Unlike some counties, where elections officials anticipate, prepare for and welcome dozens of observers to each and every election, Susan Ranochak told us that over the past eight years, only a handful of citizens have observed elections in Mendocino County.
“Normally, no,” Ranochak responded, when asked if observers have been coming to view the canvass. She continued by saying that in 2008, a number of individuals working against the passage of Measure B, a cannabis initiative, visited her office to observe the canvass. With the exception of voters interested in that particular ballot measure, Ranochak said that Richard Johnson, the former editor of Mendocino Country Magazine was one of the only individuals who observed pre-and-post election activities. Johnson died in 2011.
“Occasionally, if you remember Richard Johnson, he came in and would observe the whole process. He would look at logic and accuracy tests. He’d watch us count the ballots on election night. He’d watch us tabulate during the canvass,” says Ranochak. She continued, stating that June’s primary was unusual “in the fact that there were five or six different folks that came in and observed.”
She went on to describe her experience with the smattering of observers she has interacted with over the years. “Most people sit here quietly, and to be perfectly honest, get bored real quickly. It’s a very repetitive process. They look at it and they don’t see that there’s anything going on. If we do have an observer, they usually leave fairly quickly. This was another thing that was unusual. These people were basically here for two weeks,” says Ranochak.
Whether someone chooses to observe for two minutes or two weeks, state law clearly upholds a citizen’s right to view election activities, combining that right with specific rules prohibiting the public’s interruption or interference with the canvass.
“I wanted to get a picture of the election process as a whole, from start to finish. I wanted to learn about how ballots are processed, about how the computers are programmed, about everything,” explains Akin, who observed on an almost daily basis from June 16 until June 29. Moore observed for 5 days, beginning June 23, and Jeavons observed for 3 days beginning June 20. The group conservatively estimates that collectively, they observed for a minimum of 87 hours between June 16 and June 29.
On June 20th, Katrina Bartolomei, Assistant Clerk-Recorder and Assistant Registrar of Voters gave Akin and Jeavons tours of the office’s three distinct canvass work areas. Observers characterize the tour as “very pleasant.” Aside from the tour, they were not provided verbal or written observer guidelines, with the exception of one copy of the State’s policies handed to Akin some 10 days into her observation experience.
Observing — At A Distance
Following Bartolomei’s tour, the relationship between observers and elections officials appeared to sour.
The observers’ primary complaint stems from what they characterize as a systematic effort to dissuade them from easily viewing the canvass, by keeping them at an inordinate distance from canvass workers. They claim that at times, visual barriers were placed between themselves and the workers, with workers stationed so far away that ballots were unreadable from their designated viewing areas.
Observers were allowed to view proceedings in three areas inside and adjacent to the County Clerk’s Office, located in Mendocino County’s Administration Building.
Deborah Moore’s first day of observing took place inside the county clerk’s office complex, where she watched tabulating procedures through a window. Moore, who did not receive a tour, states her very first encounter with county staff was vitriolic.
“From the first few minutes I arrived, I did not feel welcomed or recognized for my civic interest in the democratic process, in a building that belongs to us, as taxpayers, voters and county residents,” says Deborah Moore.
Nine to twelve scanner-sized tabulating machines were placed side-by-side on tables inside the tabulating room. One machine was placed in close enough proximity for the observers to look through their window and view ballots as they were being fed through a counting machine. The other machines, say the observers, were either too far away to view, placed at angles that made viewing impossible, or were blocked by an open door. UDJ staff confirmed the placement and location of the machines.
“Within two minutes of signing in and standing at the tabulating room’s observation window, I was approached by Ms. Ranochak. I’d never seen her before and she did not introduce herself. She immediately ordered me to move further away from the window. I replied that I was a citizen observer, and that I was trying to see the ballots being processed. I was told by Ms. Ranochak that the blinds to the observation area would be closed if I did not move further away,” says Moore. “I stated that it was my understanding that I had a right to observe the canvass, and that I was going to sit right here in my chair, which I did,” Moore continues.
“I could see one or two machines through the observation window at close range. There were usually about four workers in that room. The workers often had their backs to our observation window, or were too far away to view. We could see the information on the ballots being fed into the nearby machines, but not much more,” Akin explains.
The observers noted that per the admonition by Ms. Ranochak, blinds installed in the observation window were periodically opened, closed or “louvered” during observation periods. “There were times when we were expected to see through the cracks in partially-opened blinds,” says Moore.
“Because of the way I was treated by Ms. Ranochak on my first day of observing, I was made to feel from the get-go that I was not supposed to see clearly,” Moore continues.
Even More Troubling Challenges Plague Observers
A second viewing station was located near Ms. Ranochak’s desk, near the back of the office. Canvass staff sat at worktables. Observers were directed to sit at another adjoining table, which is consistent with state law. But again, state the observers, viewing was truncated. They claim that boxes were stacked in front of Ranochak and her worker, blocking the view of ballots and the canvass.
“We were placed catty-corner from the staff, with boxes set between them and us. I could see a portion of a ballot, primarily the Presidential side. There was no way I could have viewed the names of the candidates on the back page,” Jeavons notes.
According to the observers, the most significant viewing challenges took place in a public hall — one that most county residents are familiar with: the central hallway in the County Administration Building.
“The majority of our observation took place standing in the Administration Building’s public hallway. We stood in front of a door, observing through the door’s window, or we looked through a window adjacent to the door,” says Jeavons. The window and door are embedded with security wire. Ballot-counting tables were configured into a “U” shape, with the base of the “U” closest to the observers.
“Workers were seated across from each other at the far ends of the tables, about eight feet away from us, if not more,” says Jeavons.
Again, according to the observers, ballot boxes were left open, with lids almost completely blocking the ballots and the counting process. Photos provided to us confirm the observer’s assertions.
“We had to stand on tiptoes to see anything,” says Akin. And because observers were relegated to viewing the canvass from behind glass, they could not hear canvassers audibly confirm votes cast for specific candidates, at this location or at the tabulating room.
We asked Ms. Ranochak why she kept observers at such a distance from canvass work areas. She indicated two Assessor workstations located near the canvass tables. Ranochak stated that for security reasons, the observers could not be located near those workstations because assessing work demands confidentiality. The observers state that Ms. Bartolomei told them that space restrictions, and not issues of taxpayer confidentiality precluded them from being in the room, closer to the canvassers.
“Can they be in the room with my canvassers? If I feel that— they were allowed here (pointing to the observation area near her desk), the observation area by the tabulating room, and observation is through that window. Again, that’s at my discretion,” Ranochak explained.
Repeated observer requests to be allowed closer to the canvass fell on deaf ears.
“I made my concerns about viewing known to Katrina Bartolomei on the first day I observed. She said we couldn’t be any closer due to the room size. I think it’s obvious there were many creative ways that one or two people could have been accommodated,” Akin explains.
Akin also stated that Ranochak told her that “Observers have no right to see ballots being worked-on, only the general process.”
Ranochak’s comment to the observers appears to be consistent with her interpretation of the Elections Code. Yet in her interview with us, she appeared to contradict herself. Ranochak stated that “elections should be a public, transparent process,” and that “you don’t want to appear to be hiding anything.”
She continued, saying, “They’re (observers) basically allowed to observe everything. There’s nothing they’re not allowed to observe. They can watch us process the provisional ballots. We have a viewing area so they can watch us tabulate the ballots. If they want to come back and watch me pulling ballots out of the vault, they can certainly do that. I’m not sure why they would want to watch that,” she continued.
Though state law gives elections officials latitude with regard to running their canvas in their own office, the intention of the law seems to favor close encounters with canvassers. Elections Code 15104(d) states, “Observers will be permitted access to a designated observations area, sufficiently close to enable them to observe and challenge whether individuals handling vote-by-mail ballots are following established procedures.”
Ms. Ranochak did not address the inherent conflict of a designated public observation area located adjacent to Assessors working with confidential information.
The Sacramento County Election Observers Guide states that “Observers may get close enough to observe the information on the workstation and the reports pertaining to the workstation.”
The observers recount that aside from being given one copy of the Elections Observer Guidelines, weeks into the canvass, the only rule cited by Ms. Ranochak to justify her decisions regarding their lack of proximity to canvassers was California Elections Code 14291, which states, “After the ballot is marked, a voter shall not show it to any person in such a way as to reveal its contents.”
“Ms. Ranochak told us that this code explained why she was keeping us so far away from the workers,” says Akin.
We asked Lisette Mata, Deputy Secretary of State for Special Projects if this statute applied to the voter observation process. It does not. According to Ms. Mata, “That code section refers to Election Day procedures at the polls.”
Residents of other counties are allowed significantly closer to canvassers. The City and County of San Francisco Observers Guide expects observers to “Keep at arm’s length from staff and not speak directly to them.”
The Sacramento County Voter Observer Guide takes a clear but lighthearted approach, stating “If staff can hear you breathe, back up. You’re too close.” It is clear through researching other county policies that voter observers are not only allowed in the room with canvassers, but are expected to be standing directly behind them, so that they can easily tally votes and observe the canvass in real time.
When asked what she thought observers were looking for, Ranochak responded, “I have no idea. Most observers just want to observe the process. And when they sit here for a while, and when they observe what we’re doing, they seem to satisfy themselves, say thank you and leave. With this group, this time, I just got the feeling that they felt that if Senator Sanders wasn’t going to win, something was wrong. And that certainly wasn’t an issue in this county. He won by quite a margin here — over 60%.”
We asked Ranochak if the observers identified themselves as Sanders supporters. “No, they did not. They were not — (pause) — but I guess he ran a grassroots campaign. There was a loose organization in each county. They were passing out information to them and over the Internet to do this. The questions that I was being asked— they were concerned about how ballots were going to be tabulated, which they watched, whether ballots were being rejected for any reason, which we very seldom do,” she explained.
The observers state they were repeatedly told they were not allowed to watch the processing of provisional ballots — ballots that require extra handling, such as a ballot cast by Ukiah resident who ended up voting at a Fort Bragg precinct. Mendocino County processed about 950 provisional ballots during the June primary, with 857 accepted, according to Ranochak.
“We asked and were specifically told by Sue Ranochak that we couldn’t observe the processing of provisional ballots because there was personal information on the outside envelope of those ballots,” says Akin. Voters using a provisional ballot fill out information on a unique outer envelope, which includes their name, address, birth date and either the last four digits of their Social Security number or their California Driver’s License number.
Ranochak insists it is a violation of both State and Federal law to view personal information on provisional ballots, and that this was explained to observers numerous times. “Typically, Katrina goes through this with them. We have copies of the guidelines here, if they want them.”
To explain her interpretation of this decision, Ranochak provided us with a page from the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. She cited section 15482 — Provisional Voting and Voting Information Requirements, highlighting one sentence: “Access to information about an individual provisional ballot shall be restricted to the individual who cast the ballot.”
HAVA is administered by the United States Election Assistance Commission. In 2002, HAVA, according to the website, “was passed by the United States Congress to make sweeping reforms to the nation's voting process. HAVA addresses improvements to voting systems and voter access that were identified following the 2000 election.”
A search of the entire HAVA document did not result in the revelation of specific rulings regarding an observer’s right to view provisional ballots. The previous portions of the statute Ranochak cited refer to the establishment of “a free access system that any individual who casts a provisional ballot may access to discover whether the vote of that individual was counted.” The specific sentence Ranochak cites refers to establishing the confidentiality of this free access system, and does not, as she states, address any federal laws regarding voter observation processes.
When asked if she believed if observers should be allowed to view provisional ballots, which can include personal information, Ranochak replied, “I personally don’t, and I interpret the code that way, just from the fact that even the voter is not supposed to share ballot information with anybody. That’s in the elections code. It’s a violation of Federal Law. Do you want people looking at your driver’s license and your social security number? There’s certain things that people shouldn’t be allowed to see,” Ranochak noted.
Again, there does not appear to be a legal basis for Ranochak’s claim. There is no State-stipulated limitation placed on the observation of provisional ballots. The Orange County Handbook for Election Observers states that observers may watch the processing of provisional and vote-by-mail ballots, ballot duplication, the processing of write-in ballots and ballot reconciliation. Their guidelines repeat State statues that observers may be sufficiently close to observe the canvass and that ballots being read and the tally sheets shall be within clear view of the observers.
Lisette Mata states that though counties have the ability to set up individualized processes to verify signatures and count ballots, Elections Code section 15350 provides that provisional ballots shall be processed and counted “in the same manner as vote-by-mail ballots.”
Mata also stated that Elections Code 15104, noted earlier, upholds the right of observers to view the processing of provisional ballots. Sacramento County clearly addresses the presumption and the likelihood that observers might view personal information by stating that “Observers may take notes during the process, but may not record any voter’s personal identifying or contact information,” adding that “The Registrar of Voters reserves the right to read an observer’s notes prior to exiting the building.”
The observers also saw numbers of opened provisional ballots which had been bundled together with what appeared to be unprocessed provisional ballots. Regarding opened provisional ballots, Mata cited Elections Code 3019(g), stating “A ballot shall not be removed from its identification envelope until the time for processing ballots. A ballot shall not be rejected for cause after the identification envelope has been opened.”
The observers reported two other incidents involving canvass staff, including extra-help employees hired by Ranochak to conduct the canvass. Ranochak reported that along with two other full-time employees and herself, she hired six extra-help staff to help with the canvass.
“We were sitting at our station near the tabulating area, which is located near the front of the Clerk’s Office. We were close enough to office staff to hear their conversations with the public,” says Moore. “We overheard a member of the public asking a county employee at the front desk what we were doing. The employee responded by saying, ‘Oh, you know, there’s a lot of conspiracy theorists out there, and that’s just how it is now,” says Akin.
Another interaction left the observers speechless. “We were standing in the public hallway, observing. A county employee, perhaps someone in the maintenance department walked directly over to the ballot counting area and chit-chatted with the canvassers for several minutes. He stood directly in front of our observation window. Our view was completely blocked,” says Akin. After laughing and talking with the canvassers, the man came outside and spoke to the observers. “He said to us, ‘I have a message from the ladies in there. They want you to know that they’re not here for Trump,’” says Akin.
“We were dumbfounded. We certainly don’t know every rule about how canvasses are conducted, but anyone who has voted knows that poll workers and voters can’t discuss candidates or even wear political buttons. I assume the same rules apply to canvassers. The fact that it was perfectly acceptable for this gentleman to interrupt the canvass, talk to the canvassers and bring that message to us, when we were relegated to watching the process through glass, at least eight feet away, was very disturbing,” Akin notes.
“If this was supposed to be a joke, it didn’t go over very well,” says Moore.
From the beginning, observers felt dismissed, discriminated against and marginalized. “One of the first things Ms. Ranochak said to us was, ‘I can ask you to leave, even if you are not a distraction to the process,’” says Akin.
Technically, this is true, but the devil is in the details. State guidelines clearly stipulate that observers must not in any way impede the canvass. But other counties seem to take a more measured approach to minor observer violations. The Contra Costa County observer guidelines stipulate that violators who break a rule “may be required to depart the designated observation area and not be permitted to return that day.” Sacramento County states that observers holding discussions inside the canvass work area “will be asked to leave for the day.”
Questions remain about the public noticing of the Manual Tally and the 1% Tally — two counting events which are open to the public and are to be announced prior to their commencement. We asked Ranochak how these events were publicized. She stated that she posted a notice on the inside and outside of the clerk’s window five days before the tallying events. Though the placing of a note technically meets State reporting requirements, most counties file a public notice with their local newspapers to alert the public of upcoming tallying events.
According to California Government Code section 12172.5, all California counties are required to create an Election Observer Panel event. Each county is required to develop an Election Observer Panel Plan that provides people with the opportunity to observe local elections processes.
Mendocino County’s plan states it will “Provide the public with the opportunity to observe and make suggestions on ways to improve the election process, to help ensure the integrity of the election process and remove some of the mystery associated with the election process, in an effort to build voter confidence and encourage more people to take part.”
It continues by stating that observers may “view absentee and provisional ballot processing, make notes and watch all procedures.”
When asked to describe the purpose of an Election Observer Panel, Ms. Ranochak stated, “Every county has it. I don’t know why they call it an Observer Panel. Because it’s basically— whoever comes in and wants to watch the process can come in. It’s not a specific panel — not an appointed panel of people. Usually between 60 and 30 days before an election, we will send out invitations. Nobody ever shows up. We provide the information to the Secretary of State. Does anyone exercise their right to observe? Not really, since Richard passed away. We update it every year,” Ranochak notes.
We asked Ms. Ranochak if Central Committee members attend. She said, “No, but then again, you’re hoping that you’re contacting the right name, because the Central Committees don’t have an obligation to tell us who’s on their boards. Our Central Committees never go to elections,” she continued. “We’re not a ‘swing’ county. Our voter registration is probably close to 50% Democrat. There’s very seldom any close races in this county, except on the local, and even the local candidates don’t come in. Even for this judge’s race. We never saw Keith Faulder and we never saw Patrick Pekin,” she continues.
We noted that both the Republican and Democratic Central Committee have permanent post office boxes listed on their websites. Jeff Tyrrell, Secretary of the Democratic Central Committee noted that Central Committee members recently filed their addresses with the Secretary of State’s Office, as Central Committee positions are elected positions.
We received two copies of Mendocino County’s Observer Panel Plan — one from Ms. Ranochak and the other emailed from the Secretary of State’s Office, presumably a copy of the plan submitted by Ms. Ranochak to the State. The plan, dated June 7, 2016 states that the Registrar’s office will prepare letters of invitation to the Grand Jury, Central Committee members, advocacy groups, the League of Women Voters, the media and other groups or individuals expressing an interest in observing Election Day activities, both at the polls and at the elections office. Copies of a template invitation letter was provided.
The invitation letters provided by the State of California and Ms. Ranochak were identical, except for one thing: the letter provided by Ms. Ranochak had been updated to invite panel attendees to events associated with the June 7, 2016 primary. Curiously, the letter provided by the State of California addressed election activities scheduled for May 19, 2009. Has it been seven years since an Election Observer Panel was convened?
The Ukiah Daily Journal contacted the League of Women Voters, the Grand Jury and both the Mendocino County Democratic and Republican Central Committees to confirm if the organizations have been receiving invitations to Election Observer Panel events. Copies of the draft invitation were provided to the organizations to help jog memories. Jeff Tyrrell, current Secretary and past Chair of the Democratic Central Committee does not recall the Central Committee receiving written invitations to Voter Observer Panels, for the June Primary or for previous elections. Ukiah Daily Journal Editor KC Meadows does not recall receiving invitations to Observer Panels, though she does recall being invited to observe preparation of voting machines — which would be a pre-canvass event.
An Entrenched Culture?
Current and former county staff, along with several long-time politicos who spoke on condition of anonymity had their own set of observations.
They state that an unwieldy combination of Ranochak’s multiple job duties, her questionable decision to repeatedly re-hire the same team of extra-help employees and the community’s lack of engagement in election activities have resulted in an office culture where the voter observers are perceived as bothersome nuisances who encumber what is arguably an already challenging process, creating what one source called “the appearance of impropriety.”
“We have a Registrar who wears too many hats,” said one person. It is believed that following the retirement of an incumbent Assessor at the end of 1998, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution combining the offices, effective January, 1999, with the rationale being purported salary savings.
“Sue Ranochak is a respected assessor,” said another. “No one doubts her excellent qualifications in this regard. But that’s the problem. Assessing is Sue’s passion and primary area of expertise,” says the source.
Two sources went so far as to intimate that the extra-help canvass workers are related to upper-level staff currently employed in county clerk’s office.
“For years, virtually the same people are hired to work on the canvass. Mendocino County is almost always among the last counties in the State to post election results. It’s not much of a stretch to wonder if these two circumstances are connected in some way,” the source continues.
‘We’ll Be Back’
The observers state that the lack of clearly articulated office guidelines, Ranochak’s disputable interpretation of State and Federal laws and her almost scornful response to repeated requests for information left the observers feeling they had been subjected to “death by a thousand cuts.”
“During question and answer times, we felt belittled. The attitude was that we were disrupting the process. If we asked follow-up questions because we didn’t understand the answer, Susan said, ‘I’ve already given you the answer.’ The canvass is a very technical event. We’ve been to college. If we couldn’t understand an answer to a question, I believe that the answer we were given was probably insufficient,” Moore says.
“If our County’s Registrar of Voters thinks that observing the canvass means that we could observe people doing it, yes, we can confirm people were counting ballots. Beyond that, it is difficult to say what percentage of the canvass we were truly able to observe,” Akin notes. “Did Ms. Ranochak break any laws by refusing to respond to our repeated requests to be closer to the canvass? I guess that’s for the Secretary of State to decide,” she concludes.
“I’m left feeling that I can’t assume local checks and balances are in place. This is why people don’t vote — they feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” Jeavons notes.
“Ultimately, we are left with questions about the accuracy of the vote,” says Akin.
Despite their frustration, the observers state they are ready to do it again in the fall. And with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump actively encouraging election observers to participate at the local level, the trio expects they will not be alone.
“I feel now, more than I did prior to this experience, how important it is for all of us to exercise our rights as citizens, and to participate actively in all aspects of our elective process,” says Jeavons.
“I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be back in November,” Moore notes. “And we hope there will be many others who will be observing — at the polls and at all stages of our election,” she concludes.
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal.)