Following up on a claim 3,000 ballots had gone to vacant UCSB dorms, an accusation made by defeated Assembly candidate Charles Cole's campaign, Republican officials stated they were satisfied with the Elections Division's explanation. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Republican Party for Santa Barbara County announced on Tuesday that the rumored 3,000 ballots sent to empty UC Santa Barbara dorms was “not true.” The issue was raised by the Cole campaign at the turn of the year, and the charge was answered for county Republican leaders during a meeting with the Elections Division on June 17.

Thomas Cole, father and campaign manager for 2020 Assembly candidate Charles Cole. | Credit: Courtesy

Charles Cole had run for the 37th Assembly District, losing to Steve Bennett by a wide margin of 29 percent to 71 percent, or more than 50,000 votes. According to Thomas Cole, who ran his son’s campaign, the precinct that held the dormitories had a 75 percent turnout rate, which he thought suspicious as he claims some were locked and empty due to the pandemic.

The March 2020 primary saw 3,612 ballots mailed to UCSB dormitories, the GOP press release stated, but nearly all students had left the dorms by the time of the November general election due to the pandemic. Renee Bischof, deputy of elections for the county, explained to GOP leaders that the majority of students had changed their voting address by the time ballots were mailed in October. Only 122 ballots were sent to UCSB dormitories. Republican leaders stated, “The Elections Office staff was open and transparent about the election processes and answered numerous questions … “

Bobbi McGinnis, who chairs the party in the county, said the issue had taken on a life of its own after a local daily ran the allegation: “The Santa Barbara Republican Party got so many phone calls from literally across the country.” With the state opening up from COVID, they were able to meet with Bischof, McGinnis said, who showed them spreadsheets comparing registered voters at each dorm, how many ballots were sent, and the difference between March and November.

McGinnis had also visited the polls in November, talking with supervisors about the rules. And she talked with UCSB’s mail carriers, learning that only six ballots were returned to the Elections Division as wrong addresses, which she found reassuring.

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From what she’d seen and learned, “We felt we had to send a press release. … We wanted Santa Barbara County to know they had a well-run elections office and that their vote counts,” McGinnis said.

Joe Holland, who is the county’s elections czar, explained that candidates have access to past voter history information: “That’s routine because as a candidate you need to reach out to voters and send out mailers.” In Cole’s case, Holland called the allegations false regarding the turnout rate and the dormitories. “In 2016, there were about 20,000 students who cast ballots in the UCSB-I.V. area. In 2020, less than 10,000 cast ballots; of course, because of the pandemic, they all moved away. All that information was available on our website.”

Cole was not at the June 17 meeting and continues to be dissatisfied; the Elections Division had let him know a recount was possible at a cost of $20,000, but he said he didn’t trust them for the job. The only way to know was to go over the ballots and account for every vote. “I’m not saying that I’m going to do it, because I’m not,” Cole said. “But I raised the alarm, and I was completely shunned.”

McGinnis also continued to have misgivings about weak links in the ballot process, saying that no voter identification was required at polling stations and that the sign-in signatures weren’t verified: “You could give a Mickey Mouse signature and be Donald Duck,” she said. Bischof had suggested voters renew their ballot signature by re-registering every five years, McGinnis said, because signatures change over time and are required for mail-in ballots.

But in this election in Santa Barbara, “No candidate lost because of voter fraud,” McGinnis affirmed.

Correction: This story was revised on June 30, 2021, to include updated and corrected information.

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