Orange County’s newly minted registrar Bob Page is under a spotlight after issues with two recall elections in the last month, raising questions on what kind of oversight the county’s chief elections official has over local elections.
Page recently reversed two certifications on recall elections after they’d already approved them in October, one for the Orange Unified School District and another for the Santa Ana City Council.
The hiccups come as a wave of election denial has swept the country, with a handful of public commenters speaking out at county supervisor meetings questioning whether or not local elections were fixed each week despite no evidence showing they were.
Page said he’s not worried about any further issues at his office, and invited the public to come watch them work on processing the ballots if they had any concerns.
“My concern as the Registrar of Voters is to administer accessible, fair, accurate, secure, and transparent elections in Orange County,” Page said. “Voters who have questions about elections are always welcome to come to our office or any Vote Center to observe our processes.”
Both elections are still moving ahead after Page recertified the Orange Unified School District and Santa Ana city council members voted to push ahead with the recall of Councilwoman Jessie Lopez despite losing Page’s certification they’d received enough signatures.
What Happened in Santa Ana’s Election?
While Page admits the Orange Unified recall was his office’s mistake, saying they failed to sample enough signatures on their first review, he said the error in Santa Ana occurred before the recall petition reached his office.
The issue was that Lopez recall petitioners used her current ward’s boundaries when they gathered residents’ signatures.
But Lopez was elected in 2020, under a different ward map that was later redistricted.
There’s now uncertainty over which map applies.
After realizing the uncertainty when ballots had already mailed out, Page notified City Hall officials in late October and requested direction.
On Monday, the Santa Ana recall committee’s chairman, Tim Rush, said it was Santa Ana City Clerk Jennifer Hall who told his team to gather signatures based on the current boundaries of Lopez’s electoral district.
“Our clerk, who is the [city’s] election official, told the committee to gather signatures based upon the new ward boundaries which has three fewer precincts than the previous boundaries,” Rush wrote in a Monday text message.
“We followed her direction.”
Requests for comment from Hall and a city spokesperson late Monday afternoon went unreturned.
To see a map of which voters were removed, click here.
“The map error occurred before the City asked the Registrar of Voters to examine the recall petition,” Page wrote. “When I identified the issue last week, I quickly notified the City Clerk and requested direction as to how to proceed.”
Page’s office had already certified the validity of signatures in July, by going off the 2022 maps instead of the 2020 versions.
He later noted that given the reliance on the 2020 maps, the recall did not have enough valid signatures.
According to Page’s new count of verified voters, the current recall petition lost 82 voters, a designation that brings it below the threshold required under state law.
Yet whether or not to proceed is up to Santa Ana, Page added in an interview with Voice of OC.
Santa Ana city council members voted to move ahead with the election despite the fact that Pages advised them they didn’t have enough signatures under the old district lines.
“I hereby rescind my certification dated July 17, 2023 regarding the ‘Petition for Recall of Jessie Lopez,’” Page wrote in a letter to the city on Oct. 30.
City Leaders Move Ahead Despite Concerns
City officials can decide to move forward with the election despite lacking those signatures according to Page.
That’s just what they did.
“My Certificate as to Verification of Signatures on Petition only states the number of voter signatures the Registrar of Voters team found valid and invalid. It does not certify whether the petition was sufficient to require an election,” Page said in a statement.
“The determination as to whether that means the petition was sufficient or insufficient, must be made by the City Clerk,” he continued. “To call off the election, the City Council would have to rescind its resolution ordering the election.”
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, said while the issues in the elections were “honest mistakes,” it could still lead to further concerns about the election’s legitimacy.
“It’s unfortunate they didn’t catch it earlier,” Balma said. “It’s important to be accurate, and the consequences of not being accurate are people are suspicious and people start to believe that things are not fair and somebody’s putting a thumb on the scale.”
“I don’t believe that’s true,” she continued. “However, if you only read the headlines or hear secondhand that a recall was approved when it shouldn’t have been, that contributes to a lack of trust.”
A Changing of the Guard
Page replaced the county’s longtime registrar Neal Kelley in Feb. 2022, who was recognized as one of the best elections administrators in the country after nearly two decades at the helm in Orange County.
“The reputation of our registrar of voters in Orange County is just so sterling silver that you hate to see anything tarnish that reputation,” Balma said. “But people are human.”
Page came with a lot less experience, saying he’d administered about three statewide elections, one recall election, and a “handful” of local elections in the neighboring county when he was hired.
Before he was the registrar, he was a top political aide to multiple county supervisors in San Bernardino.
When asked if he’d be changing anything to avoid similar errors in the future, Page said they had started a review of their procedures.
“The election is our primary focus. But, the quality of our work and continuous improvement are important to us as well,” Page wrote. “As such, we have started to review our procedures and checklists to identify opportunities to improve how we support city clerks.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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