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Riverside County Certifies Its Vote—At Last

But Talk of Harvesting and Recounts Belie Sense of Finality

By Laura Hauther, December 11, 2018 6:17 am

Indio Mayor Mike Wilson is saber rattling about a recount.

After blowing several promised deadlines the Riverside County Registrar finally released its certified vote count around 5am Friday morning.

None of the results changed the outcome of a few highly contested races. Throughout California totals reported on election night changed drastically over the next days and weeks of counting absentee and provisional ballots, and Riverside was no different.

And, like in many California races, Republicans are challenging the wide swings in results from election night to the final certified count. Some are making allegations of outright voter fraud, while others are claiming the practice of ballot bundling or ‘ballot harvesting,’ made legal in 2016, is tantamount to fraud.

Winners of city council seats and state legislature were sworn in on December 3rd, even without the certified results.

On election night Indio Mayor Michael Wilson held the lead by 9% in the race for Indio City Council District 2.  As more votes rolled in the total seesawed between the candidates until Wilson’s challenger, Waymon Fermon pulled ahead by 156 votes, winding up with a 148 vote lead in today’s final certified count. Fermon was confident enough in the upward trend of these numbers to throw a victory party at a local eatery Friday.

Wilson is not going down easy. He said he’s considering a recount.

“Mathematically and statistically those extra ballots just don’t show up in a block after three weeks of counting showed this race would be decided by a very small handful of votes,” Wilson told the Uken Report, adding, “Something is amiss here and we intend to explore it.”

In an interview with KESQ TV Wilson said,  “It has become extremely clear in this campaign a practice of ‘ballot harvesting’ took place.”

Ballot harvesting is when a campaign deploys volunteers to gather up ballots from voters who support their candidate. Since 2016 state law allows a voter to  designate anyone they choose to deliver their completed mail-in ballot.

Wilson has not offered any evidence of harvesting in Riverside County but that has not stopped Wilson from repeatedly accusing Democrats of  illegal tactics.

Wilson has a history of stirring the pot with his social media posts and in a recent heated Facebook exchange with Fermon supporter Lynn O’Neill, Wilson wrote:

“Remember your boy can be taken out just as fast as he was fraudulently elected,” before threatening to work on recalling Fermon if a recount fails.

Fermon, who is African American, seems determined to stay above the fray, writing in a December 4th Facebook post:

“Indio and its residents deserve respect. Our democracy should be honored and encouraged. From day one we have stuck to a positive message that leans on our better nature. Our children are watching and learning from our example.”

If Wilson is serious about launching a recount campaign, he’ll have five days to file after the vote is certified.

This is not the only local election to garner accusations of fraud from Republican candidates.

Waymon Fermon won by 148 votes in the certified count.

In the election for the 60th Assembly District, a Republican stronghold in the past, Republican Bill Essayli ran to get the seat back in Republican control after Democrat Sabrina Cervantes defeated Eric Linder in 2016.

Lawyers and others from the Essayli campaign have been keeping a close eye on the count process. Essayli led with 1.122 votes on election night, only to see the race turn around by the next morning, giving her a lead of 8,377 votes by Friday. The final certified count shows Cervantes won by 8.14% or 10,240 votes.

Riverside County Registrar Rebecca Spencer acknowledged vote counting is a slow process done manually to make sure the office gets it right. Any voter is allowed to come and observed, and many, including Essayli, have taken her up on that. He deployed a team of lawyers and observers to watch the process closely, even to the point of challenging signatures on ballots.

Pushing back on criticism after winning the legal battle allowing his attorneys to challenge signatures, Essayli wrote is a Facebook post:

“The only votes we are trying to suppress are illegal ones. We asked the county to enforce the election code and that is now what they’re doing.

It’s no surprise that Sabrina Cervantes does not want the law enforced. Her father, Greg Cervantes, and a campaign staffer are both facing criminal prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office for their illegal conduct during the campaign.”

Greg Cervantes was caught on a doorstep security camera removing Essayli’s campaign poster, and replacing it with the assemblywoman’s flyer.

Essayli also called out Cervantes for ballot harvesting, posting a video of her encouraging volunteers to collect votes on Facebook, saying:

“It’s not fraud if it’s legal. CA Dems rewrote law in 2016 making previously illegal practice of collecting ballots (ballot harvesting) legal. Paying campaign operatives and union workers to collect ballots from reluctant voters is not democracy – its (sic) a banana republic.”

The Cervantes campaign didn’t respond to these jabs, but her campaign deployed their own lawyers to keep an eye on Essayli’s legal team and their ballot challenges.

Derek Humphrey, Cervantes’ campaign spokesman told the Desert Sun Essayli is just being a “sore loser’ and stated Essayli’s tactics are “straight out of Trump’s playbook. Essayli was losing, so he tried to undermine voter confidence in the electoral system.”

Many Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan have cast doubt on the integrity of California’s election procedures after numbers that indicated Democrats won only one congressional seat, only to pick up six more as votes were totaled.

Despite many Republicans calling foul on this year’s election outcomes, these large shifts can largely be explain by this years 4.8 million absentee and provisional ballots, a increase of over 2 million from previous years.

Laura Hauther

Laura Hauther is a veteran reporter for KPFK and has written for several LA weekly newspapers.
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