When Santa Clara County’s top election official tried to circumvent state law to qualify a labor-backed measure for the ballot, she seemed to be acting under political pressure.
At least that’s the impression San Jose City Clerk Toni Taber says she came away with after a series of phone calls from county Registrar of Voters (ROV) Shannon Bushey.
Taber describes the exchanges in new court documents as part of a lawsuit filed by the ROV against the city to try to revive the Fair Elections Initiative, which Bushey’s own office rejected for failing to gather enough signatures to qualify it for the fall ballot.
The proposal by the South Bay Labor Council aimed to shift mayoral elections to presidential years with higher labor-aligned voter turnout and prevent San Jose candidates from accepting donations from lobbyists, anyone who benefits from city contracts of $250,000 or more and for-profit developers.
Per election code, the ROV had to confirm whether 3 percent of the 94,202 signatures gathered were valid. If at least 95 percent of the random sample of 2,826 names made the cut, the measure would go to voters in November. But one count after another affirmed that only 93 percent were valid. Dead on arrival.
On March 11, Bushey officially disqualified the measure. In a highly unusual move, she then went on to sue her own agency and the city, claiming the ROV made 87 mistakes that would change the outcome if corrected.
Stranger still were the “three or four” calls Taber received from Bushey over the course of the random-sampling tally, which Fair Elections proponents had challenged.
“During the first of these calls, Ms. Bushey advised me that the ROV was projecting that the number of valid signatures would be approximately 93 percent and the ROV would be double-checking on them,” Taber described in a declaration filed in court today. “She indicated that verification of the sampling did not appear to be reaching the 95 percent threshold and asked me if the city wanted a full count.”
Taber says she declined the offer.
Not only would a full count cost the city something on the order of $1 million, it went above and beyond the legal requirement to verify just a random sample of signatures.
The city clerk says she got a second call in “late February to early March” in which Bushey offered to be the one to request a full count.
“I stated that I did not authorize payment for a full verification, reiterated that the city requested a random sample and indicated that I wanted to follow the regular process,” Taber recounted.
On March 5, another call.
This time, Bushey allegedly asked something to the effect of: “Are you sure you do not want a full count? My boss is here.”
Taber says she again insisted that the city’s strapped for cash as it grapples with pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and that a random sample verification would suffice. The exchanges struck Taber as extraordinary.
“I cannot recall any other instance in which Ms. Bushey called me regarding the status of a count before the ROV had issued its certification,” the city clerk remarked in her declaration. “It was my impression that Ms. Bushey was under pressure from her superiors to conduct a review of all of the signatures.”
Officials from the ROV did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit generally and about Bushey’s remark about her “boss” specifically.
But CEO of Silicon Valley Organization President Matt Mahood—head of the regional chamber of commerce known as SVO, which opposes the labor-backed measure—criticized Bushey earlier for acting on behalf of special interests.
“The latest court documents reveal what we’ve already known from the beginning,” she said. “The Registrar of Voters, Shannon Bushey, broke the law and attempted to pressure the City Clerk to authorize a full recount without a court order. It is already extraordinary enough that the ROV is suing the city of San Jose, on behalf of a special interest group. Now it is clear that Ms. Bushey was under pressure from her superiors and from special interest groups to revive a disqualified ballot measure.”
By relying on proponents to submit external evidence during the signature review, Mahood added, Bushey broke state election law by abdicating her responsibility to remain a neutral arbiter in the matter.
“Upon the advice of these very same interest groups, the ROV is now suddenly trying to reverse her original decision that disqualified the Fair Elections Initiative without any convincing evidence that a mistake was truly made in the first place,” Mahood said.
“She deserves to be fired for this.”
In its answer to the ROV lawsuit, the city makes similar allegations about Bushey abusing her position. “The action before this court presents an unusual situation,” City Attorney Richard Doyle and Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Zoglin declare in their opposition brief. “Typically, it is the proponents of a measure who file an action such as this one against the public entity that has purportedly failed to conduct an accurate count.”
The court is set to hold a hearing on the merits of the ROV’s petition on May 8.