Facing the proverbial tough crowd, Napa County’s longtime elections chief on Wednesday evening took on nearly an hour’s worth of questioning from local Republicans about so-called ballot harvesting, mail-in voting and the integrity of the voting process.
“The bravest man in Napa tonight: Mr. John Tuteur!” said Larry Green, chairperson of the Napa County Republican Central Committee, as he introduced the county registrar of voters to open a forum at the Red Hen restaurant in north Napa.
The question-and-answer give and take of the forum fell into a pattern of different, if not clashing, priorities, with area GOP members calling for more safeguards against fraud and Tuteur emphasizing thorough counting and the widest voting access possible.
“My first job is to make sure that every eligible citizen registers to vote,” he said of his 21 years overseeing elections in Napa County, describing department practices such as fully mail-in voting, bilingual ballots and a patient approach to counting votes.
The gathering, in which Tuteur took inquiries from about 40 local Republicans, played out amid various election-related controversies in recent years – from revelations of Russian-led leaks and social media meddling the 2016 presidential race, to North Carolina’s voiding of a Republican Congressional candidate’s apparent razor-thin victory in November amid revelations of illegal vote-turnout tactics by his adviser.
Tuteur declared actual ballot-box misbehavior to be virtually nonexistent in the Napa Valley, despite claims by some audience members of shaky ballot oversight or lax registration standards.
“In 21 years, we’ve counted about 1 million ballots. There’s been one case of voter fraud,” he said – involving a woman who received a fine and probation for submitting two ballots in a 2009 St. Helena school board race. (County election workers counted only one of the ballots, which were addressed to different variants of the woman’s name, Tuteur told the Napa Valley Register at the time.)
Meanwhile, the chances of outside forces breaking into and altering the voting apparatus of Napa County, or California as a whole, are remote, because of election oversight in all 58 counties and the state’s 2008 requirement that ballot machines leave a paper record of every vote, according to Tuteur.
“The box that tabulates the ballots is plugged into only one thing: the wall,” he told the audience, pointing to the absence of any internet connection that could leave it vulnerable to hackers. Even if intruders were to use a denial-of-service attack to overwhelm and disable state election computer networks, Tuteur added, “we have registration blanks, pieces of paper that will still work.”
Despite such reassurances, Green turned toward Tuteur with pointed questions about whether the elections chief has properly audited and inspected the county’s voting systems against fraud – including the matching of residents’ signatures on their ballots with the ones from their voter registrations.
“Are you a signature expert?” he asked Tuteur about the county’s system of matching a resident’s signature on one’s voter registration to the signature required on the ballot. When the elections head replied that he had viewed some 16,000 signatures as county registrar, Green again asked: “Are you a signature expert, yes or no?”
Tuteur conceded not being an expert in handwriting forensics, but pointed to the layers of scrutiny each ballot signature receives. Signatures on each ballot are compared against computer-scanned images of the voter’s signature from their registrations; if the two appear not to match, an elections staff worker compares the signatures, with Tuteur himself inspecting the most difficult cases.
“I frankly don’t think he answered my questions in a straightforward manner,” Green concluded after the forum, saying he sought “a straight answer on purging voter rolls, a straight answer on illegal immigrants voting and a straight answer on ballot harvesting.”
Several other spectators expressed their concerns with the 2016 bill that removed California’s requirement that a voter unable to personally cast a ballot designate only an immediate relative to do so. Under Assembly Bill 1921, any person may return another person’s vote-by-mail ballot, so long as such helpers are not paid based on the number of ballots returned.
The change came in for reported criticism by California Republicans after the November Congressional elections, which produced a 53-member House delegation with 46 Democrats – including all-Democratic representation for the onetime GOP bastion of Orange County.
Party officials reportedly have called the practice “ballot harvesting” and say the new law lacks sufficient safeguards against abuse, although the state GOP also faced major existing barriers like a deficit of about 3.9 million registered voters compared to Democrats.
(In North Carolina, the family-only requirement for handling other people’s ballots remains in effect and has become the flashpoint of a House race in which an aide to the Republican candidate and top vote-getter Mark Harris is accused of illegally harvesting absentee ballots in a rural southeastern county. In response, the state elections board last month ordered a new election for the 9th District, and Harris announced he would not run again.)
Despite the clear differences between Tuteur and Green – and other Republicans in the audience – Green complimented the elections head for his patience and good humor. “John had a lot of chutzpah to show up, and I appreciate that,” he said.
Doris Gentry, who twice ran for a state Assembly seat on the Republican ticket before winning a Napa City Council seat in 2016, also credited Tuteur’s willingness to engage even those disagreeing with him. “He’s open to the community and I find that a real gift to Napa,” she said.
Despite the policy disputes and the sometimes challenging tone of his audience on Wednesday, Tuteur treated the Napa Republicans’ forum as a normal and healthy part of civic life. “People in this community care about being engaged in the process,” he said, “and that’s very important in today’s world.”