Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur will square off against political newcomer Daniel Brauning in June, marking the first election in more than 20 years that Tuteur has faced a challenger.
The winning candidate will also represent Napa County through January 2015 as assessor, recorder and county clerk.
“I am excited to offer Napa County voters a fresh perspective for the new decade in this office,” said Brauning, 28, of Napa.
A registered Republican and certified real estate appraiser in California and Nevada, Brauning said he offers “transferable skills in customer service, property valuation, computer technology, business operations and management.”
Brauning owns a real estate appraisal business in Napa and is a licensed real estate broker. Born and raised in St. Helena, Brauning is the son of Leon Brauning, president of Napa County Taxpayers Association.
Brauning said he looks forward to making Tuteur “work for his seat again rather than it just being handed over to him year after year.”
Tuteur hasn’t faced a challenger since he was first elected as assessor more than 20 years ago.
“I’m ready,” Tuteur said, calling the competition “exciting.”
Tuteur, 68, has held at least some iteration of his current post since 1987, first as assessor and then in the multi-faceted role as assessor-recorder-county clerk. A Democrat, Tuteur was a Napa County supervisor from 1973 to 1980.
“I’m clearly a candidate who has the experience of running all three offices for 12 years and who has been active in the field for 24 years,” Tuteur said. “And I think I am committed to active and friendly public service.”
Tuteur is launching a project to put Napa County’s land ownership records online back to the original documents from 1848.
He also recently reduced the assessed value of 10,000 properties, cutting property taxes in Napa County by $20 million. Tuteur said he intends to reassess all single-family homes in the county again this year, and give commercial and industrial property owners a chance to have their property values reassessed, as well.
Tuteur’s role as Registrar of Voters, though, that has earned him the most attention over the years.
In a high-profile 2004 election, former county supervisor Harold Moskowite eked out a 108-vote win over incumbent Mike Rippey. Rippey alleged ballot tampering in a trial that left the outcome of the election in suspense for months. He challenged the election based on statistical improbabilities in the overall tally, as well as alleged problems with ballots, counting devices and elections office staff practices.
Rippey’s claims were rejected in a civil trial, with a visiting superior court judge upholding Moskowite’s 108-vote victory.
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Tuteur acknowledges that his office made mistakes along the way. But he adds, “We’ve learned from the mistakes.”
Since 2004, the election office has implemented a new, more secure ballot procedure, Tuteur said.
Brauning, however, said there’s no reason Napa County’s elections office can’t be “the best in this state.”
For one thing, Brauning said that if elected he would reinstate polling places throughout Napa County and abandon the current emphasis on voting by mail.
“I believe polling places are part of the democratic process,” Brauning said. “The absentee ballot was designed for people who aren’t available to vote on that day. It wasn’t intended to be used as a tool for a mass amount of people to vote.”
Tuteur has converted 16,000 Napa County residents to vote-by-mail only since 2006, citing increased congestion at polling places.
Tuteur said he made the decision to emphasize vote-by-mail voting in November 2006 when wait-times at some polling places reached as long as 45 minutes.
“Several hundred voters were turned away from polling places, not by us, but because they couldn’t wait,” Tuteur said. “The worst thing that can happen to a Registrar of Voters is to have someone who can’t vote who wants to vote. I made a vow that night that that would not happen ever again.”
Of the 16,000 vote-by-mail voters who have lost their polling places since 2006, Tuteur said he’s heard from about 200 unhappy voters.
“I agree that not everybody wants to vote by mail, and I strongly support the idea of community that occurs at polling places,” Tuteur said, “but I have to weigh that against the fact that my job is to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to vote.”
Tuteur points out that the majority of vote-by-mail voters in Napa County do so voluntarily.
“The main reason is it’s more convenient,” Tuteur said.
In total, 50,000 Napa County residents — or about 75 percent of registered voters — currently vote by mail.
Tuteur’s salary is $160,452 a year.
Correction: The date the person elected would serve through was misstated in an earlier version of this article.