Two tight races remain undecided

As the final vote count from the November 3 general election in Tulare County is slowly tabulated, a pair of races still remain too close to call on the thinnest of margins.

Handfuls of Ballots

The contests where candidates are running neck-and-neck are the Area 6 trustee’s seat in the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) and the Tulare City Council seat representing Area 3. As of Thursday, November 19, just seven votes separated the candidates in the VUSD race, and a difference of 16 votes was the gap in Tulare. Provisional and conditional ballots are still being verified and counted.

In the close race in the VUSD, challenger Christopher Pope leads the incumbent, Dr. Lucia Vásquez, 2,091 to 2,084; while in Tulare, challenger Steve Harrell has an even 1,800 votes to incumbent Carlton Jones’ 1,784. Vásquez has slowly closed the gap with Pope as remaining votes have been counted. Harrell and Jones have traded the front position repeatedly.

Harrell’s lead in the Tulare Council race represents a mere 0.16% of the entire vote. In Visalia, the lead held by Pope is a larger but still miniscule 0.4%.

Vote Count Hampered by COVID

The confirmation of ballots has also been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic when a worker in the elections office tested positive, forcing a one-day stop of the count on November 17. That, along with the loss of workdays to Thanksgiving, has left Registrar of Voters Michelle Baldwin unable to say when her office will certify the November 3 results.

“It’s really hard for me to give you a day,” she said. “It (certification) has to be done by December 3; that’s the drop-dead deadline. We’d like to have it by November 30.”

Tulare County Elections is still receiving mail-in ballots–which can be accepted until November 23 so long as they were postmarked by election day–as well as having some 2,000 ballots with mismatched or missing signatures that must be cured before they can be counted. The extended mail-in deadline is another change forced by the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020 elections.

There are also conditional voter registration ballots from voters who registered to vote on the day of the election. Those will be counted once all other votes have been tabulated. Baldwin emphasized certification by the end of November may not be possible due to the unusual conditions surrounding this election and the care her office is taking to count every vote.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘You said you’d have it by the 30th,’” she said.

Jones Under Investigation

In another wrinkle in what has been a scandal-filled tenure for Tulare City Councilman Carlton Jones, he is now facing an internal investigation of his behavior related to the election campaign.

During an exchange on a popular social media platform earlier this month, Jones admitted removing and destroying one of his opponent’s campaign signs. After admitting his behavior when confronted, Jones then used a homophobic slur to describe his opponent’s son.

Steve Harrell’s son, Christopher Harrell, was arrested in October by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office during a sting operation aimed at individuals soliciting sex with minors via the internet.

Jones’ admission and subsequent apparent bigotry were reported to his employer, the Fresno Fire Department, which has launched an investigation into the incident of vandalism and Jones’ subsequent remarks.

The investigator, who contacted this reporter, was interested in when and where the vandalism took place, when Jones admitted involvement and on which social media platform, and whether Harrell was present when Jones destroyed his campaign sign.

Recounts Must Be Requested

There are no automatic recounts under the state’s election statutes, and the certified results are final no matter how close an individual race may be, Baldwin said.

Recounts are only carried out when they are requested. Recount requests generally come from the losing candidate, though any voter can request one within five days of the election’s final certification. Recounts must be paid for by the person requesting them, and the cost can vary depending on the size of the recount involved.

Previously, Tulare County Elections has only performed a single recount.

“We’ve had to do a recount in 2017,” Baldwin said. “We had a special election for a hospital member in Tulare. It’s not cheap.”

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