Riverside County elections chief placed on administrative leave

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Rebecca Spencer’s lawyer said the move, which follows a performance evaluation, is “totally retaliatory and political”

JEFF HORSEMAN | Contributor

Riverside County’s elections chief has been placed on paid administrative leave with less than six months to go until California’s 2024 primary. News of Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer’s leave surfaced after the Board of Supervisors met behind closed doors Tuesday, Sept. 12, to discuss her job performance.

County spokesperson Yaoska Machado confirmed Wednesday, Sept. 13, that Spencer was on leave. Juan Perez, the county’s chief operating officer “will work closely with the department’s leadership team and dedicated staff to continue to prepare for upcoming elections and to ensure the delivery of services for the communities we serve,” Machado said via email.

Machado called the leave a personnel matter and said no additional information would be available until after the next Board of Supervisors’ session. Spencer’s lawyer, Sanford Kassel, said Wednesday that she was placed on leave after that evaluation “for no stated reason.” “Rebecca Spencer, as registrar of voters, has been a tremendous asset to the county for over 24 years and has worked relentlessly in what is supposed to be a totally nonpartisan position,” Kassel said Wednesday.

The county’s move is “totally retaliatory and political in nature,” Kassel said. Spencer was retaliated against for “reporting inappropriate and unlawful activity within the county,” he said. Kassel declined to elaborate on what activity Spencer reported, but in the past, she has accused Riverside County’s district attorney and an elected county supervisor of interfering with her duties. It was not immediately clear how long Spencer’s leave is for.

The registrar is responsible for maintaining voter rolls and overseeing elections in the nation’s 10th largest county with more than 1.3 million registered voters. The registrar’s office has a $14.3 million budget. Spencer started as an intern with the elections office in 1999. She served as chief deputy registrar from 2005 to 2010 and was the interim registrar from November 2010 to February 2011.

After Kari Verjil retired in March 2014, Spencer again served as interim registrar until she got the permanent job later that year. Spencer earned just under $277,000 in salary and benefits in 2022, according to Transparent California’s public employee compensation database.

Spencer’s office faced more scrutiny in recent years as more Americans question election results. Despite those doubts and calls for the county to get rid of its Dominion voting machines, a civil grand jury investigation found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the county’s 2020 general election. Spencer’s tenure as registrar featured clashes with elected leaders and criticism of her department, including when 42,000 Riverside County voters got more than one mail-in ballot for the November 2020 election.

Spencer said more than one ballot could have gone to a voter if that voter changed his or her registration information around the time ballots were mailed and that internal safeguards prevented anyone from voting more than once.

More than 27,000 San Bernardino County voters also got duplicate ballots. In 2021, roughly 11,000 ballots were mailed too late for Eastvale and Cathedral City voters to cast ballots in special elections. Spencer blamed the mishap on a vendor who did not send the ballots to the postal service in time. The Board of Supervisors certified both elections.

Spencer also feuded with Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, who told Time magazine in 2017 that Russian hackers may have been responsible for changing voters’ registration information without their consent. Spencer countered that her office learned that most of the voters in question forgot they changed their affiliations.

In 2021, Spencer accused Hestrin of interfering with her office, alleging the DA wanted her to allow undercover agents at polling places and make her staff photograph the license plates of those who drop off multiple ballots but refuse to identify themselves. Hestrin denied ordering Spencer to do anything and said he was only suggesting ways his office could help the registrar protect election integrity.

Spencer also accused Supervisor Karen Spiegel of wanting to remove the county’s only 24-hour ballot drop box, which is outside the registrar’s Riverside headquarters. Spiegel denied pressuring Spencer to remove the box.

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