The day Santa Clara County and its six neighbors issued the nation’s first stay-home order of the Covid-19 pandemic, the letter arrived.
Dated March 16, the South Bay Labor Council demanded to review signatures that county Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey—just a month earlier—said fell short of the number needed to qualify the union coalition-backed Fair Elections Initiative for the fall ballot.
The proposal would shift San Jose’s mayoral elections to presidential years, in which labor-friendly voters turn out in greater numbers, increasing South Bay Labor’s chances of winning the city’s top job. The long term strategy is important enough that the council spent $420,000 on the petition drive to bring the initiative to voters.
Proponents needed at least 65,573 valid names to meet the state election law benchmark. The raw count started on Valentine’s Day and lasted through the end of February. During that time, ROV personnel sorted signatures to see if proponents collected enough names.
They thumbed through signature pages by month and then by day in a manual count that identified 92,404 names. Then, during the first week of March, the ROV reviewed 2,826 names randomly selected by a computer algorithm and deemed 1,183 of them invalid.
Based on the state election law’s formula, that meant the initiative fell short of the 95 percent threshold to land on the ballot. The ROV team quadruple-checked the tally, Bushey said, before finalizing the result.
Case closed. Until it wasn’t.
In a move the initiative’s opponents call a stunning admission of failure, Bushey on April 13 sued San Jose over a litany of mistakes for which she takes the blame.
Bushey’s petition against City Clerk Toni Taber—who withstood ROV’s pressure for a full recount—and three proponents of the measure demanded a recount of nearly 100,000 names on grounds that the ROV made dozens of errors and missed at least 87 valid signatures during the February tally. It’s an unprecedented about-face that could cost the city, already reeling from Covid-19’s economic fallout, $1 million to fix.
Bushey and Taber both declined requests for comment because the matter is subject to ongoing litigation. And South Bay Labor didn’t respond to a similar query.
But the head of the region’s largest chamber of commerce said the whole situation suggests ineptitude—if not worse.
“Due to the extraordinary incompetence of the Registrar of Voters, the integrity of our local elections is at stake here,” said Matt Mahood, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Organization (SVO), which usually stands at odds politically with South Bay Labor. “The public deserves to know how the registrar could even have 87 alleged errors or more than a 3 percent alleged error rate in the signature verification process. Entire elections can be swayed with such a large margin of error and it undermines the public’s confidence in our election system.”
SVO also took issue with the way Bushey went about trying to invalidate her own original order. After certifying the results in February, proponents didn’t ask to review rejected signatures until the Bay Area issued its public health mandate, which shuttered all but essential county functions, severely diminishing ROV staffing, and suspended all but the most urgent court proceedings.
A lawyer representing SVO said the business group didn’t find out about Bushey’s petition until the same day she asked a judge to consider it in an emergency hearing. SVO attorney Matthew Alvarez said the lawsuit’s rushed timing makes it look like the ROV was trying to use pandemic-related shutdowns as a chance to address the matter “under the cover of darkness.”
The fact that Bushey allowed the measure’s proponents to bring in its own experts after a ruling had already been issued is unusual enough in itself, SVO officials added, and makes it look like the county’s going to bat for special interests.
“The ROV and county counsel are doing all the proponent’s work,” Alvarez said, “so they don’t have to bring the litigation themselves.”
Mahood slammed the ROV as exceptionally inept and secretive and called on Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen to investigate alleged “improprieties” under Bushey’s watch.
“Shannon Bushey continues to fail as our county registrar with zero accountability,” he said. “No other registrar in the state would keep their job given the ongoing mistakes and incompetence exhibited during this signature verification process and the past elections. In this case, we don’t know the extent of the incompetence because they continue to hide everything behind closed doors. Everything the ROV has done should be open to the public, including all of the alleged mistakes they made the first time and why they are changing their mind now.”
A judge is scheduled to decide today whether the SVO can join the lawsuit. The court will then hold a hearing on the merits of the ROV’s petition on May 8.