A woman stands on the left with a voter ballot and a man stands on the right holding a clipboard
Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey demonstrates how to fill out a ballot on May 11, 2022 in this file photo. Bushey is retiring from the position four months before the November election.

Santa Clara County’s top elections official is bowing out four months before the November election and shortly after her office landed in the hot seat over a historic recount.

After nearly 30 years leading the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters through myriad controversies, Shannon Bushey is retiring on Friday due to medical reasons, according to spokesperson Steve Goltiao. He declined to comment further. Bushey also declined to comment through a spokesperson. It follows a medical leave Bushey had taken for a length of time that Goltiao declined to disclose due to privacy concerns. Assistant Registrar Matt Moreles will lead the office in the interim, likely through the looming presidential election.

“It has been a very difficult decision to make, but in the end, I decided that it is time to focus on my health,” Bushey wrote in a May 9 letter to the county Board of Supervisors. “The last 28 years working at the Registrar of Voters have been exceptionally gratifying both professionally and personally. It has been a privilege to serve our voters and provide them the opportunity to have their voices heard through a diversity of voting options, language assistance, and accessibility.”

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Bushey’s office. A once-in-a-lifetime tie in the hotly-contested race for Congressional District 16 this year forced county elections officials to admit to human errors in April. Registrar workers revealed that 19 ballots weren’t originally tallied in the March primary because workers pressed wrong buttons and misfed tabulation machines. Three ballots were mistakenly double counted. The county also accepted seven challenged ballots.

The result: Assemblymember Evan Low picked up additional votes over Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, breaking the unprecedented tie and advancing Low to a November runoff against former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

Bushey’s office called it a learning experience, prompting another look at its quality control procedures.

In 2020, Bushey faced pressure to walk back her rejection of a labor-backed election initiative in San Jose for failing to gather enough signatures. Bushey filed a lawsuit aiming to reverse the office’s denial in March. The measure was disqualified, but labor advocates claimed thousands of signatures were lost by elections officials and vowed to appeal the decision.

Years before that, Low emerged as Bushey’s most vocal critic, frequently referring to the county’s election system as one of the poorest in the state. In 2017, a scathing audit into the agency — ordered by Low — found that from 2010 through 2016, the registrar administered nearly 30 elections and had 26 errors related to elections materials, ranging from incorrect mapping of voting districts to lack of proofreading.

Low declined to comment for this story.

Across the U.S. in recent years, the registrar of voters office has gone from a procedural job to one of the most politicized and stressful as polarization fuels the perception of compromised election systems. In February, Shasta County lost an election clerk who similarly chalked it up to health concerns, but faced significant pushback on election results and practices.

“The registrar has transformed from a fairly routine office to the target of election denial extremists,” Supervisor Otto Lee told San José Spotlight. “Attacking the registrar with conspiracies and disproven fraud allegations undermines our most basic democratic process. Under Shannon’s leadership, we have protected our democracy locally and stand ready to ensure a free and fair election in 2024.”

In 2016, Bushey’s office had to conduct recounts for two San Jose City Council races. One of those races in District 8 went through two rounds of recounts. After the second round, Bushey acknowledged her office mistakenly counted 31 vote-by-mail ballots in the close race, in which Sylvia Arenas — now a county supervisor — defeated opponent Jimmy Nguyen by fewer than 70 votes, fueling Nguyen’s public challenge of the certified results’ integrity.

In the District 4 council race that same year, incumbent Manh Nguyen similarly criticized the registrar after paying for a recount that still put his opponent, Lan Diep, in the lead.

Santa Clara County supervisors had nothing but praise for Bushey in response to her announcement.

“I wish Shannon the best as she prepares for a well-deserved retirement after serving the residents of Santa Clara County for decades,” Board President Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “She has been a steady force over the years, providing consistent leadership, including her service as a member of the Coalition of Bay Area Election Officials.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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