Three candidates seek seat of Nevada County Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters
May 16, 2018
Perhaps the toughest questions the three candidates for Nevada County Clerk-Recorder face in the June election are simply:
What, exactly, does a clerk-recorder do? And why should voters care who gets elected to the position?
All three candidates — incumbent Greg Diaz and challengers Mary Anne Davis and Elise Strickler — agree that the official who oversees the county's elections, and the recording of its documents, is vitally important.
They differ, of course, as to who is best qualified.
Davis and Strickler both point to what they see as disconnects in the office and say that a change is needed. Diaz, who has served in the position since being appointed in 2007, says his experience cannot be discounted.
MARY ANNE Davis
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Davis, currently the event manager/nonprofit manager with The Union, has spent 30 years in Nevada County in marketing, project management, event management, public relations and nonprofit service.
Now that her kids are grown, she said, she felt she had the time to serve her community — although, as she noted, she already serves as president of her Rotary club.
"I wanted to serve in a bigger way," Davis said. "I see this as a way to help the county."
Davis said running for clerk-recorder had not been on her radar until she was encouraged to read a Nevada County Grand Jury report critical of Diaz and the elections office.
"That caused me to think some change and a fresh perspective was needed," she said. "I was concerned about the amount of money being spent to fix problems, and I was concerned that the voter rolls were not being cross-checked with the felon lists — for four years."
The position of clerk-recorder appealed on another level as well.
"Ever since I was a little girl, my parents instilled in me how important it is to get out and vote," Davis said. "I find it very important for elections to be run with integrity; it's really critical."
In Davis' view, there is room for improvement in the clerk-recorder's office. And despite her lack of experience, she said she has the management chops to run the office successfully.
"Managing and leading — I've done that for 25 years," she said. "It's less about the specific details, and more about the management and leadership of the team. I'm familiar with the elections code; I've been studying it and I have been talking with clerk-recorders in other counties."
While Davis acknowledges a learning curve, she said she was thrown into managing The Union's home and garden show — and into producing a documentary film — with no prior experience.
"It doesn't scare me," she said. "I have good communication skills, and that has been a criticism of the elections office in the past."
And, she said, running a large-scale event has a lot of parallels with running an election.
"The same tactics totally apply," Davis said. "You have to plan months in advance, negotiate contracts, work with vendors, coordinate staffing — and it all has to come together at the same time."
Davis gave the decision to run a lot of serious thought, she said.
"At the time, no one was running against Diaz," she said. "I thought, certainly I can do this job. … I don't do things on a whim. This is a very well-thought-out, planned campaign. If I don't succeed, at least I know I did my best."
Davis said she has campaigned door to door, gone to Truckee, and spoken to a lot of groups.
"I've had to explain what this job is to a lot of people," she said. "(Then) the bulb goes on, and they understand how critical this is."
Diaz was appointed to the position of clerk-recorder in 2007. He won his first four-year term in 2010, beating challenger Barry Pruett, and ran unopposed in 2014.
Diaz's 11 years on the job have been marked with some controversy.
In 2008, an argument supporting a ballot measure was inadvertently put on the wrong page of a voter information pamphlet. At the time, Diaz said it was not the fault of his office. In 2010, Diaz, Nevada County and the elections office were sued by software firm AtPac for allegedly breaching a contract to provide recording software for the county. Nevada County eventually settled with AtPac, denying any wrongdoing.
The elections office was the subject of Nevada County Grand Jury reports in 2012, 2014 and 2017 that found inadequate poll worker training. Diaz disputed those findings, pointing to a positive review of the November 2016 election process by observers from the California Secretary of State's office. Polling place workers were found to be helpful and knowledgeable, and polling places were organized, according to the analysis.
"The Secretary of State sent their observers here, they attended classes and training — and their report was completely the opposite," Diaz said. "The members of the Grand Jury are not professional election administrators."
And, Diaz argued, even if poll worker training had some hiccups, "It's all about Game Day. … None of it matters except for Election Day performance. So OK, look at that. It was stellar, and has been stellar, all the years I've been here."
Diaz notes Nevada County being chosen as a pilot county for the implementation of the Voters Choice Act as a huge accomplishment — and as a reason he chose to run again, as a project he wants to see to completion.
"I am so excited about where our office is going," he said. "I want to run again because this is what I do and I do it exceeding well."
The majority of Nevada County voters already vote by mail, he said — 77.63 percent in November 2016, up from just 60 percent in 2007.
"The decision to go ahead with the Voters Choice Act was easy for me," Diaz said. "The other counties are set to go live in 2020. Because we're a pilot county, I felt strategically and logistically that if we started now (with the June election), with a smaller election, we will be that much ahead of the curve with the presidential election."
Among his accomplishments, Diaz noted he was asked to speak at the Future of California Elections conference in March, as a panelist for the opening plenary session "Opportunities and Challenges for Elections in 2018," and at the closing plenary session "Implementing the Voter's Choice Act in California's Diverse Communities."
That honor, along with the selection of Nevada County as a pilot for the Voters Choice Act, speaks volumes of his qualifications, he said.
"You can't come in and learn on the job – this is too important, it's too complex," Diaz added. "I have the experience, the training, the education and the performance."
Strickler, who currently works as an analyst in the Nevada County CEO office, spent several years working for Diaz in the elections office.
And it is that perspective that led her to run, she said.
"I got to be part of this very important part of our democracy," Strickler said. "It's not political; it's giving a voice to the people to vote the way their conscience dictates."
Being the clerk-recorder would be a good mesh of all her passions, she said — her "inner geek" and her desire to help people.
"I've been thinking about running for several years — it's a path I wanted to take," Strickler said. "I see that there are things that can be done better, or more smoothly. Specifically, communication, not just to the Board of Supervisors and internal offices, but also the community at large."
Strickler questioned the way the Voters Choice Act is being implemented as a major example of how communications should be improved.
She said many people still are not aware of the fact that there will not be polling places this year.
"There aren't as many locations available (to vote)," she said. "Going from 48 polling paces to seven Voting Centers, it's a huge decline, even though they will be open longer. We could have had more centers, to make people feel like they have a place to go. I would have liked to see — one in North San Juan. There's a drop box there, but no Voting Center."
In Strickler's view, more could have been done to educate the public beforehand, and she said follow-up will be vital.
"Any time you do a change, I believe you should over-communicate," she said. "That has been lacking for something this important."
Going forward, she said, the elections office should survey every voter it can.
"We have two elections this year to capture that (information)," Strickler said. "We're committed now, but we need to follow up to make sure this is the path that we want to continue down. … Our community needs to be part of this decision, as to whether they like this transition."
Strickler acknowledged that with any large undertaking, there are always hiccups.
"What is missing in this office is the management piece," she said.
Diaz, Strickler said, has been a little too hands-off and not as present as necessary.
"I want to make it easier to interact with the office on several levels," she said.
For one, Strickler wants to bring in some programming for candidates, to make filing for office an easier process. And she wants to make more statistics available, both with voter data and with documents on the recorder side.
"It should be all about transparency and making data accessible, making it easier for the public to interact with us," Strickler said.
"We are the behind the scenes of what keeps the county working," she said. "The people in this office should have high integrity, they know what the laws and regulations are. From birth to death, we're in your life."
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.