BAKERSFIELD, Calif (KGET) — It has been a year and a half since former president Donald Trump claimed the 2020 election was stolen from him, setting off protests around the nation and uniting his supporters behind a new rallying cry: stop the steal.
It all culminated in an attack on the U.S. Capitol, where some Trump supporters hoped to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Despite the former president’s own Attorney General Bill Barr finding no widespread fraud in 2020, Trump’s stolen election assertion amplified a deep mistrust in American elections that remains today.
A UMASS poll in December 2021 found 33% of respondents believe Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory was probably, or definitely, not legitimate. Among Republicans, that number rose to 71%.
Kern County is certainly no exception.
That became clear over the last 10 weeks as a group of nearly 20 residents continued to show up at Board of Supervisors meetings, each expressing concerns with the 2020 election and 2021 recall in Kern. Issues ranging from general claims that dominion voting machines caused Trump’s 2020 loss to specific concerns residents say they witness first-hand with the voting process
“Personally, I along with many others tagged thousands of signatures that were drastically different from the signature on file,” Kern resident Leilani Tedeski said. “They were approved.”
Either way, it is evident that as we quickly approach the 2022 midterm, the effects of 2020 are still playing out and some residents in Kern are deeply concerned.
Vote-by-mail by party affiliation
Before we look at the claims of voter fraud, we first want to look at how your ballot gets to you, and what happens after you turn it in.
The life cycle of a ballot is short, but every step in its journey is critical to ensuring your vote is accurately counted.
“The ballots begin to be mailed out May 9, and then over the next five days,” Kern County Auditor-Controller-County Clerk Mary Bedard said.
Mail-in ballots are created at K&H Printers in Everett, Washington, and mailed straight to voters. Every registered voter is sent a mail-in ballot.
The voter opens the ballot materials, fills out the ballot, and seals the folded ballot in the return envelope provided. The voter then signs and dates the back of the envelope. All identification information is written on the envelope — the actual ballot holds no identifying information.
A mail-in ballot can take one of three routes to the elections office.
Voters may mail that ballot directly to the elections office in the postage-free return envelope, or the ballot can be dropped in one of 17 registered drop boxes around the county. Every two to three days, teams of two elections officials collect the ballots from each locked dropbox and take them directly to the elections office.
Finally, the ballot can be dropped at any poll site on Election Day, where poll workers separate it from ballots cast in-person and return it to the elections office.
“Whether it’s the mail-in ballots, those coming in the mail, or those coming in from the drop boxes, they will be processed the same way,” Berdard said
Ballots cast at poll sites are sealed in transport boxes and driven by poll workers back to the elections office. No matter how you cast your ballot, it ends up at the elections office — the only place ballot verification and vote counting happen.
“The first thing that happens is those envelopes get run through our sorter,” Berdard said.
A mail-in ballot must go through a series of checks before it is processed.
First, software and election workers double-check the signature on the envelope, ensuring a match with the signature on file.
“Every single signature will have two reviews. It will have the software review, but it will always get a second review by a person,” Berdard said.
If something looks off, another manual check is performed. The voter is contacted if that check fails.
If the ballot passes verification, it is mechanically removed from its envelope, and then manually flattened and checked by election workers for damage. Then, elections officials run it through a tabulating machine, and the vote is counted.
Ballots submitted in-person are removed from the sealed transport boxes and run directly through the tabulators.
You can watch your ballot move through all of these steps with BallotTrax. Just head to ballottrax.com and register your ballot.
Election Integrity Project California
Despite county officials saying the process of voting by mail is safe and effective, we have heard from some voicing their concerns , claiming there is fraud.
Many of those voicing concern belong to a group called called the Election Integrity Project.
On the surface, it is not unlike what we saw around the country in 2020 with citizens and watchdog groups staking out the polls. But we wanted to know more about what EIP California does and the influence it has in Kern.
“The elections system has changed. It’s not your father’s election. But not in a good way, in a bad way,” EIPCa Kern County Coordinator Tom Pavich said.
That concern is exactly what brought Tom Pavich, the CEO of Bird Rock Vineyards, to the Election Integrity Project California , where he has served as Kern County Coordinator since 2012.
But the idea all started with Santa Clarita teacher Linda Paine, who was adamant about putting together a group of citizens to observe elections and monitor voter rolls to ensure election are accurate and safe. In 2010, she drove up and down California recruiting people like market researcher Ellen Swensen — now EIP’s Chief Analyst.
“I was just interested in politics I supposed, walking precincts, observing poll sites. And then I met Linda and we started EIP California,” EIPCa Chief Analyst Ellen Swensen said.
Paine says EIP has recruited over 17,000 people across the state, training citizens in every corner of California to take to poll sites and election offices in their local counties. Citizens like Vince Maiocco, who decided to volunteer for EIP in the 2021 recall.
“It’s the smaller races, the school board races, the different types of city council, supervisors where obviously the margin of victory is gonna be a lot closer than it would be in a statewide or federal election.” EIPCa volunteer Vince Maiocco said.
EIP insists it is non-partisan, although Paine has had close ties to the California Tea Party, a well-known right wing political party.
EIP is in the middle of a lawsuit against 13 California counties and the state itself.
The group says it has over 700 signed affidavits noting what it considers election irregularities.
Specific Voter concerns
As we mentioned, for more than two months, a group of concerned citizens, many of them volunteers for the Election Integrity Project, have taken the floor at Board of Supervisors meeting, expressing specific concerns about our election process.
We have closely been following everything mentioned, speaking with both distressed residents as well as election officials and doing our own reporting along the way.
The concerns range from personal and specific experiences to claims of wide-reaching failures of the system.
The concerns are compounded by the California policy of mailing ballots to every registered voter in the state. It was first enacted to make voting easier during covid but became permanent this year.
Many presenters at Supervisors meetings are worried ‘messy’ voter registration lists, a lack of adequate training and the use of machines to count votes leads to mail-in ballots falling into the wrong hands and other inaccuracies in our elections.
Some say the problems start at the very beginning of the voting process, with voter registration rolls.
This is the list of everyone registered to vote. Numerous people said the rolls are not maintained well, which they say leads to the possibility people could vote twice or vote in place of someone else.
One speaker, Leilani Tedeski, brought up the birthdates of people on the list.
“I analyzed the voter roll and found 262 voters who were born on Jan. 1 1900 which makes them 122 years old,” she said.
The Secretary of State’s office said the state’s current election code requires everyone to include their birthdate when registering to vote. This is to establish voters are at least 18 years old. But this law didn’t go into effect until the 1970s.
“Once that became part of the voter registration requirement in California, we would have reached out to all those voters to get their birthdates. Many of them were able to update the information but some of them didn’t,” Bedard said.
The Secretary of State told us those who registered to vote before the law went into place and did not update their information to include their birthdays were ‘grandfathered into the system and assigned the Jan. 1 1900 birthdate’.
“We simply do not have that information in the computer system and as many computer systems do, if the field is vacant for something like that, a date, it defaults to a January 1 1900,” Bedard said.
From the voter registration list 17 News obtained this year, we found 256 people have the birthyear 1900. That would make them 122 years old.
However, we looked through every one of those 256 people and found all but two voters have the birthdate January 1 1900.
That indicates it is unlikely many of these people are actually 122 years old. Rather, they were most likely assigned the January 1 1900 birthdate by the computer because they did not update their date of birth after the law went into effect.
But when it comes to the remaining two people who have birthyears of 1900 but not a birthday of January 1, one has a birthday of January 18, 1900 and the other has a birthday of May 6, 1900.
We called the voter with the birthdate listed as January 18, 1900. She told us her birthday is actually January 18 1990, which makes her 32 years old. She said she might have put the year 1900 by mistake.
We couldn’t locate the other person.
We wanted to see if the 254 people who are listed with a birthdate of January 1 1900 actually voted or were sent a ballot in 2020. Remember, these are the voters who appear to have been assigned the January 1 1900 birthday by the computer due to the state’s new law in the 1970’s.
We found that of the 254 who were sent ballots, only 10 voted by mail.
127 didn’t vote at all, 104 voted by absentee ballots, which is different from vote-by-mail ballots, 12 voted the old-fashioned way, in person at a polling place, and 1 ballot was challenged and therefore not counted.
Now, moving to another issue raised with the voter rolls, many said they noticed registered voters listed twice.
“I did some checking of the voter rolls. It took me less than half an hour. I got halfway through the letter a and I found 20 duplicates on the voter rolls,” concerned Kern resident Greg Perrone said.
Perrone said he counted a duplicate as registered voters with the same name, address and date of birth.
17 news looked at all the registered voters with a last name that starts with ‘A’ and found 23 registered voters had the same first, middle and last name and exact same address. We excluded those indicating they are father and son by putting a suffix of senior, junior the third and so on.
When we took a closer look at these 23 matches with the same name and address, We found none of them had the same phone number and birthday. We should note, however, that many did not have a phone number listed at all. We reached out to Perrone to ask about this but have not heard back.
A number of residents said they saw people that they know have moved out of Kern county still on the voter list.
“I looked at the voter roll and I also coach at Taft college and I was able to count over 250 of my former student athletes that were still on the voter roll that no longer live in kern county and some of them no longer live in California,” concerned Kern resident and EIPCa volunteer Vince Maiocco said.
When we asked Bedard about this concern, she told us the county is frequently notified by the post office or another county that someone has moved. But outright canceling that person’s registration in Kern still requires action from the voter themselves.
“Once we’ve get notified that somebody has moved, then we reach out to them—if they have given a forwarding address, if they haven’t we can’t. They aren’t cancelled but they are moved off the active registration roll, so they aren’t really considered registered at that point, they are put into what is called an inactive status. The one place where that inactive still shows up is we are required to include them on the list at poll sites,” Bedard said.
Bedard said those on the inactive list are not sent a ballot in the mail. In the case of the 250 former student athletes on the voter roll, it is possible the county was notified these students moved. However, if the students did not confirm to the county they moved, Kern is still required by state law to put their names on the list at polling sites. Because Maiocco saw the voter registration list at a polling site, this could explain why his student’s names were on the list.
Now, turning to the process of counting ballots. This brought up a whole new slate of concerns.
Some EIP speakers at Board Meetings told county Supervisors they saw poll workers and volunteers who did not seem well-trained, especially when it came to verifying signatures.
Tedeski who spoke with 17 news on the phone but declined an interview on camera praised Kern’s neighbor up north, Tulare county, as having a process we should follow
“In Tulare county only full-time employees who have completed three hours of annual training conducted by the fbi are granted the responsibility for performing this critical process,” Tedeski said.
17 news spoke with the Tulare county registrar of voters Michelle Baldwin. She said their signature training is done only before elections, not annually and is conducted by Larry Liebscher. Liebscher is not a part of the FBI, but worked for 17 years as the lead investigator for the Redding police department’s forensic crimes unit. He now operates forensic handwriting services where he provides training to city, county, state and federal entities.
Bedard said Kern county employees also receive training on how to verify signatures from Liebcher just as in Tulare. Bedard specifically said last year five employees were sent to a training by him in October 2021 and seven employees attended his training in August 2021.
When it comes to training of poll workers, Bedard acknowledged it was harder to train those during the 2020 and 2021 recall elections. She said this is because the training sessions were online due to COVID. However, Bedard said she believed the training was still sufficient.
Lastly, many have expressed deep skepticism about the integrity of voting machines.
Since the 2016 election, Kern and 24 other California counties have used dominion machines to count ballots. Many have shown concern that these machines could be connected to the internet and be subject to hacking.
The county said the machines are called a ‘closed network’ meaning they are not connected to the internet and the only access to the server is by being in the room where ballots are counted at the elections office and access is extremely limited.
Overall, the biggest change most of those speaking over the last few weeks want to see in the election system is returning to a hand count of the votes here in kern.
“I’m supporting also that we go back to hand counting voting the way that we were prior to the introduction of the dominion machines of 2015 for the 2016 election. We should go back to what we were doing for over 100 years,” concerned resident Joe Chesney said.
Bedard said Kern county has not used hand counting in over half a century. Before the current machines, they used punch cards. They say around 2002, Kern purchased the Diebold Global system to count ballots. In 2007, Diebold split off it’s election system to premier. In 2009, premier was sold to ES&S and in 2010, ES&S was sold to Dominion.
You just heard some of the most popular claims about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. But we’re going back to the data we collected to show how many ballots were called into question.
We looked at voting methods for registered Republican, Democrats and no party preference voters.
The ballots that were challenged were evenly split, for the most part.
The data we collected shows 570 republican votes, 560 democrat votes and 400 N-P-P votes were challenged by the county elections office. Officials say these ballots came back, but the signature did not match the one on file.
Despite attempts to contact the voter to assure they were the ones who voted, the ballots remained challenged, and therefore, not counted.
In an ideal world, there would be no imperfections to the election process. Our investigation found there is no widespread voter fraud. Despite safeguards, high-tech software and a group of trained volunteers, elections are complicated, especially with nearly half a million voters in Kern.
It is like balancing a check book.
You may keep all your receipts and records to ensure it matches what’s posted on your bank account, but it may not add up to 100-percent every time.
Would it have made a difference in the 2020 election where Trump beat Biden in Kern County by over 30,000 votes?
Most likely not.
But it is possible it could make a difference in close school board or city council races where the difference in votes could be in the single digits.
Now, we look to the primaries, and while it’s almost certain claims of fraud will continue, elections officials say they will continue to protect the sanctity of your vote.