Every two years or so, they see the return address on election information or they pass through the recorder’s office to obtain wedding licenses, birth certificates, death certificates – important public records requests, to be sure.
At least that’s how it used to be. Then 2020 happened.
Voter registration offices across the country were thrust in the national spotlight over the issue of voter fraud. This included polite questions about the security of mail-in voting to death threats by people who did not like election results.
Voting offices throughout the United States have become Ground Zero for what some pundits and elected officials have termed “the heart of our democracy.”
That’s not lost on the two candidates running for Contra Costa’s clerk-recorder-registrar of voters position, the first time in nine years that there has not been an incumbent on the ballot. Candidates Kristin Connelly and Vicki Gordon have said that voter transparency is their No. 1 priority if elected.
“This is important work,” says Connelly, the president and CEO of the East Bay Leadership Council and a trustee on the Acalanes Board of Education.
Voting advocacy at the state level
Connelly’s interest in voting and voter registration is a long one. As a high school student from Martinez, she spoke in front of the state Legislature about making it easier for students to register to vote.
“It would be kind of like getting a driver’s license – something they would look forward to when they turned 18,” she says. “They didn’t all have to vote, but at least we would have done our best as a state to get people registered.”
The bill failed down party lines in a then-Republican-led Legislature, but Connelly never stopped trying. Her long record of public service continued in college, after the Bush vs. Gore and “hanging chad” election fueled what she says is her “commitment to fair, impartial and secure elections.”
Connelly put her interest into action, organizing law students to volunteer as non-partisan poll monitors in Cleveland and later training lawyers to handle election day calls from voters with questions or who were experiencing difficulties voting.
“Voter fraud is not new,” she says. “It’s been going on for years and years.”
From her own perspective, “and now I’m dating myself,” she says, she witnessed the lengths some “interests” will go to suppress the vote, including fraudulent signs directing voters to a non-existent polling place and a fake MySpace page targeted at college students erroneously stating that members of one party voted on Tuesday and members of the other major party were supposed to vote on Wednesday – the day after the election.
She echoes the sentiment that now, more than ever, “misinformation about voting and elections is a threat to our democracy.” And that compelled her to run for office.
From a public records standpoint, she wants to use technology to get records faster and more efficiently and see best practices from other counties around the state.
Connelly often speaks with community groups who believe that mail-in voting is illegal, and she spends a lot of time explaining how it works and how much more time and care it takes.
Connelly received endorsements from U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, State Sen. Steve Glazer, Assemblymembers Tim Grayson and Rebecca Bauer Kahan, Concord Mayor Dominic Aliano, Supervisor Karen Mitchoff and Pleasant Hill City Councilmember Ken Carlson, himself in a battle for county supervisor.
Pushing through media frenzy
Speaking of battles, it’s hard to win an election when you are fighting on two fronts: one for votes and another against negative media reports. Yet that’s what Gordon is doing.
The second-place finisher in the primary behind Connelly, Gordon is currently a major news story herself. A resident of Pleasant Hill accused Gordon of stealing an election sign for one of her competitors in the June primary, Devin Murphy.
“That was totally misrepresented,” Gordon says. “I like Devin and told him I would support him if he came in one of the two top spots.”
Gordon says she thought the sign was placed in an illegal location and didn’t want Murphy to get in trouble. The homeowner where the sign was placed disagreed, saying the sign was on private property. The story blew up on local community websites and other media outlets.
With a long history in educational leadership, Gordon insists she would do nothing like that. She just wants a fair election for everyone, which is why she is running for the office.
“People are just looking for a scandal,” she says. “I want to make sure there are no scandals for anyone seeking office in Contra Costa County.”
Gordon has three top priorities if elected. First, she wants to make sure people aren’t afraid of mail-in ballots.
“People get their ballots two months before an election. If they fill them out and mail them, they need to know they are safe.”
The clerk-recorder’s office emails people when their ballots arrive, but she says that’s not enough. “Transparency: We want people to know what happens to their ballots and how their votes are counted.”
Secondly, she wants to increase outreach and education – not only about registering to vote but following through and voting. Like Connelly, she encourages all schools and community colleges to take more of a role in educating young people on registering and about the issues at hand.
She also wants to increase the diversity of voters, encouraging those in disenfranchised neighborhoods to get active in local politics and realize that “everyone’s vote matters.” She is encouraging more mobile sites to register voters.
Gordon says her strengths lie in engagement and networking.
“We have to get to different organizations, faith communities and veterans’ services to register voters, educate them about mail-in ballots and make sure they know they can make a difference,” she says.
Gordon served as a trustee of the Martinez Unified School District for 15 years and as a member of the Contra Costa Community College Board for eight years. Her late father-in-law, George Gordon, was considered the “father of the community college district” and served as a trustee for 28 years.
More recently, she served as chair of the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s Independent Redistricting Commission. She says she worked to ensure that “all members of the public were heard and that the many communities inside WCCUSD would have a voice in district elections.”
Gordon is also a member of the State Community College Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statewide Taskforce, working to overcome historical barriers to inequitable education.
Another one of her strengths, she says, is customer service, and she aims to make the recorder’s office handle requests swiftly and accurately.
She too is endorsed by Glazer, as well as former clerk-recorder Steve Weir. Other supporters span the county, including members of city councils from Brentwood to Hercules.
In this race, two dynamic women aim to bring the Clerk-Recorder-Elections Department into the third decade of the 21st century with a bang.
Peggy Spear is a journalist and frequent contributor to the Pioneer.