Santa Barbara Election Czar Joe Holland’s Mantra: Vote Early

County Girds Up for Unprecedented Election Challenges

Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

OYE,OYE:  No one is sure who originated the phrase “Vote early, vote often,” but what we do know is that Joe Holland is not amused. Holland is perhaps the single most important elected official you never heard of. As Santa Barbara County’s clerk, recorder, and assessor and registrar of voters, he is in charge of all the people who are making sure you can vote. And this year that means figuring how you can do so without risking the dread COVID-19, and that your vote actually gets counted in a timely way. 

“Vote early,” Holland said in a recent interview. “Vote safe.” He said it a lot. But the way he said it was a cross between a prayer and a command: “Vote early!” 

Having been first elected the county’s election czar in 2002, Holland qualifies as a quasi-grizzled old pro. When he says, “This year’s election will be like no other ever in terms of logistical challenges,” he might know a thing or two. In the first election he managed — the 2003 special election to recall Governor Gray Davis when the state was experiencing massive power shortages in its electrical grid — Holland failed to order enough ballots to accommodate all the voters. Forced to improvise, he made “facsimile ballots” at Kinko’s, and Arnold Schwarzenegger wound up getting elected governor of California.


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Until July, Holland was also the head of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Before stepping down and worried about the spread of COVID, he called on Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order so that all voters would be sent mail-in ballots this year whether they asked for them or not. Newsom agreed. 

Naturally, President Trump — an aneurism in human form — is charging that mail-in elections are rife with voter fraud. Then, in almost the exact same breath, the President of the United States of America exhorted citizens to commit voter fraud. Specifically, Trump suggested his followers to show up at polling places to vote, having already cast their ballot by mail. That’s called voting twice, which by the way, is against the law. If the voters’ second ballot got counted, Trump argued, it would prove his charge of fraudulent elections.

Holland, who takes pains to project absolutely no partisan vibe, was measured in his response. “When I hear anyone talk about voting twice — even if it’s the president — I say, ‘Sorry, that’s not going to happen. That’s a felony, and if you try it, we’re going to prosecute you.’”

Holland takes democracy seriously. “WTF!” he exclaimed. “This is too important. This is who we are. This is government. This is everything.”

California has offered voters the permanent mail-in voting option since 2003. Back then, about 35 percent of Santa Barbara County voters voted by mail. Today, it’s closer to 75 percent. If the system were susceptible, we’d have seen it by now. Holland says every now and then, county elections workers stumble across some parent submitting a mail-in ballot on behalf of a child who has since flown the coop. Such cases are referred on to the District Attorney’s Office, which typically mails a stern letter to the parent warning of felony charges should it happen again.

Back in 2008, Steve Pappas, a candidate for 3rd District supervisor, lost by 806 votes. He alleged he was the victim of “wholesale” voter fraud involving thousands of ballots cast in Isla Vista. Pappas sued, but at the trial, it turns out, he had nothing. Judge William McLafferty, who presided over that sorry courtroom spectacle, concluded, “Pappas has failed to produce evidence of even one isolated incident of fraud or other illegal voting,” and dismissed Pappas’ allegations as “frivolous and tantamount to an intentional misleading of the court.”

For Holland, this is his first all-mail election. Though he is quick to praise local postal workers for their heroic dedication, he is mindful of well-documented concerns that recent changes at the postal service — imposed by a Trump appointee — have significantly slowed down delivery times. “Don’t hold onto your ballot,” he warned. “Don’t wait ’til the last minute. Read about your statewide propositions in advance; know what you’re going to do and do it.” If you want your ballot counted on election night, he warned, don’t wait until election day to turn it in.

To make the trains run on time, Holland is sending out sample ballots five days sooner than usual. He’s buying more ballots than he thinks he needs. “I’ve got 50,000 registered voters who’ve never voted by mail before,” he said. In addition, state law now allows for Election Day voter registration. Elections used to be like holding a wedding party, Holland said; you knew 15 days before how many guests were going to show up. Now, thanks to same-day registration, it’s a wild guess. In addition, for 17 days after the election, Holland and crew must count all ballots postmarked November 3.

This year, the county will only operate 35 polling places — normal years the number is 86 — for people who like to vote the old-fashioned way. Voters who do, must wear masks. Or they can hand their ballots to poll workers through their car window. In order to avoid voters having to wait in long lines, as have been seen in other states, these sites will be open for four days: from October 31 until Election Day on November 3. To ensure these sites are properly computerized, County Elections shelled out $1.3 million to cover the special costs. In addition, Holland and his cracker-jack team will be operating 35 drop boxes where voters can simply deposit their ballot.

As for “Vote early, vote often,” it turns out William Henry Dana — who wrote the international best seller Two Years Before the Mast, all about cascarones and visiting Santa Barbara back in the 1830s — was one of the very first writers ever to record its use.

Just vote.


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