As Mark Lunn, Ventura County clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, retires, his seat has become a tug-of-war between a career government worker who wants to turn mobile voting into a food-truck-style event and a private citizen with decades of high-level business and auditing experience. The two candidates propose to take the local election system in very different directions.
Assistant county clerk Michelle Ascencion declined to answer the Guardian’s questions but is running on the promise to create “votemobiles” to “bring the excitement of in-person voting to new places in the community, just like the recent food-truck craze.”
According to her website, “These days, everything is delivered. Some counties have converted RVs or trailers into ‘votemobiles’ to bring the excitement of in-person voting to new places in the community, just like the recent food-truck craze. Other uses include outreach and education, and the MVU [mobile voting unit] can even serve as a backup voting location in the event of an emergency. The best part: projects like these are eligible for federal grant funds, making minimal impact to the local county budget.”
Her opponent, Jeff Hargleroad, graduated with a business degree from CSU Northridge, managed Sony Pictures’ $200 million budget and has raised kids and grandkids in Ventura County for the past 35 years. He says “votemobile” plans present a danger to voting integrity, opening the door to coercion, voter fraud and system failures.
“When you add ways to vote, you’re adding more complexity to manage,” Hargleroad says. “We should focus on ensuring that votes are being cast in a safe, effective manner, so the electorate has confidence that those votes are accurate and fair.”
Born in Nebraska, Hargleroad moved to Southern California in the 1960s, and he and his wife of 29 years, Terri, have raised a family and made a life in Ventura County. Jeff served as a CPA and performed internal audit work for Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures. He eventually managed Sony’s $200 million baseline annual budget, plus all the assets belonging to Columbia Pictures (now Sony) and the company’s 2 million square feet of facility space in 50 countries.
In the background, and now full-time, the Hargleroads operated a 75-acre lemon and avocado ranch in the Santa Rosa Valley and are “hands-on farmers.” Their produce is locally packed and sold in Ventura County and worldwide, including to chains like Chick-fil-A, which uses their lemons for its lemonade. Jeff also led one of the largest 4-H clubs in the county for nearly 20 years.
He decided to run for clerk-recorder and registrar out of discontent with a government he believes has significant problems which must be improved by the application of professional standards.
“I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone to utilize my unique skillsets to really make a difference and to ensure that we have safe and fair elections — that they’re clean, transparent and that the protocols are working, and we’re making new protocols as necessary,” he says.
The Hargleroads were dismayed to see what the county has become in the last two years. Terri lost her job because of COVID mandates, and when the couple looked at the state of local politics, they were unimpressed.
“A lot of things were occurring that we have been not really happy with,” Hargleroad says. “We were tired of the cronyism and the ‘selection versus election.’ There are plenty of qualified candidates who could do this job, and the idea that the number twos [like Michelle Ascencion] are uniquely qualified and should be put in — I took great exception to.”
For example, Mark Lunn seems to have strategically filed for retirement in March, leaving fewer than four days for outside candidates to file papers to run for his position. Ventura County’s treasurer and assessor also announced their retirements on the same day, and each endorsed their assistants. This political trick is often used to guarantee that the political establishment’s desired candidate runs unopposed — in this case, Lunn’s number-two person, Ascencion.
The trick didn’t work. Hargleroad heard about the opportunity and, within twelve hours, filed for candidacy.
With decades of experience managing very large budgets and performing audits, he aims to ensure cleaner voter rolls, develop permanent internal auditing and budget efficiency, and conduct regular assessments of Ventura County’s election apparatus operations.
“With something of such magnitude and such importance, we should have internal audit staff working on the accuracy of voter rolls, verifying the whole voting supply chain is secure and working, so we can have confidence and comfort in this process, and I can go before the board of supervisors and happily report the results of elections,” Hargleroad says.
He has found in speaking with precinct workers that “The protocols on paper aren’t necessarily being adhered to or followed,” he says. “I would get under that immediately and really determine where our shortfalls are, where’s the delta between what the policy is and what’s actually happening on the ground. I want to make sure we have election confidence in the system because if we don’t, even if it’s just a perception, that’s a problem.”
He believes that if Ascencion inherits this position, none of those problems would be addressed and that election inaccuracy would multiply with “votemobiles” and other novel ideas.
“[Michelle] is a career government worker,” he says. “If we think change is going to come from somebody who’s been doing this stuff for 12 years of her career — I think expectations would have to be pretty low … We need a leader who can bring private-industry practices into the government space. That’s what I’m looking to do. … The process as it’s currently run is not sufficient for the citizens of Ventura County. I want to have a county we can all be proud of.”