Meet the Three Candidates Vying for Clerk-Recorder-Registrar of Voters



The position of county clerk-recorder-registrar of voters is one that generally flies under the radar with little fanfare or controversy. But as the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election showed, that's not always the case and — in times of intense political pressure — its local officials who stand watch over democracy.

In Humboldt County, the seemingly disparate roles of clerk-recorder and registrar of voters are lumped together into a single elected position. The clerk-recorder's side of the job oversees the Clerk-Recorder's office, which records and files various official documents — deeds, fictitious business statements, liens, registrations of professional agents and the like — and registers all births, deaths and public marriages in Humboldt County. (It also issues marriage licenses and performs wedding ceremonies.) It's the kind of government office that unless you're conducting a real estate transaction, getting married or starting a business, you probably won't have much to do with. But if you are doing one of those things, the quality of its operations will have an outsized role in making your life either easier or more difficult.

On the election side, the registrar of voters oversees the county elections manager and the Humboldt County Office of Elections, which is responsible for ensuring all eligible residents have an opportunity to vote and managing all of the minutia inherent in conducting elections in a fair, accurate and efficient manner, while walking candidates for elected office and voters through the process. And locally, by virtually all accounts, the elections office has done an admirable job on this front, at times even amid national chaos, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling deciding the presidential race's outcome in 2000 and an insurrection attempting to overturn it in 2020.

It's noteworthy that while Humboldt County's recent election cycles have been prone to close races — a Ferndale mayoral race decided by just 51 votes last year, a 2018 supervisorial race decided by fewer than 120 votes with more than 7,000 cast and a 2014 Eureka City Council race decided by 0.6 percent of the vote — not a single candidate has cried foul. There are plenty of reasons for that (including the office's reputation for hovering above the political fray) but one stands out: the groundbreaking Humboldt County Election Transparency Project, which sees images taken of all paper ballots cast in an election and made available to anyone, along with open-source counting software, to conduct recounts as they please.

With current Clerk-Recorder-Registrar Kelly Sanders having decided not to seek re-election, three candidates have entered the fray from within the two offices the post oversees: current Elections Manager Juan Paul Cervantes, the two offices' fiscal officer Benjamin Hershberger and Senior Recordable Document Examiner Tiffany Hunt Nielsen. The Journal caught up with each of the candidates recently, asking them to fill out a questionnaire detailing their education, work experience and interests, while also answering a few questions. Here's a look at each, presented in alphabetical order.

Raised in Woodland, California, Cervantes moved to Humboldt County 10 years ago to Humboldt State University, where he got a degree in philosophy before going on to get a masters in public administration through an online program from California State University-San Bernardino. Cervantes, 38, says he served as a poll worker for 20 years and organized voter registration efforts while president of now Cal Poly Humboldt's Associated Students. After working with the Northcoast Environmental Center, Access Humboldt and Centro de Pueblo, Cervantes came under the county's employment, first helping residents access resources from the county Department of Health and Human Services before transferring to the elections office, where he's helped overhaul voter information and candidate guides, worked to combat election misinformation and sits on the California Secretary of State's Language Accessibility Advisory Committee.

Raised in McKinleyville, Hershberger, 56, graduated from McKnileyville High School before majoring in business administration-accounting at Humboldt State University, with a minor in computer information systems. Hershberger spent 10 years working as a line cook at Stanton's Restaurant and another three as a cook at the Eureka Inn before joining the county's workforce, where he has stayed for the last 26 years, working up to his current role of fiscal officer.

Nielsen, 44, grew up in Kneeland and has lived in Humboldt County almost her entire life, save for a couple of years spent attending the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where she studied civil engineering before moving back to Kneeland to help her father on the family cattle ranch. Nielsen then got her surveying certificate and began work as a survey technician for a local engineering firm until the business closed, at which point she got a job with Humboldt Land and Title, working her way up to the post of title officer. When the assets of the employee-owned company sold to a corporation, Nielsen said she felt a career shift was in order so got a job with the Humboldt County Recorder's Office, with which she had worked closely with previously. She said the transition was swift. "Where I once researched and created documents to record," she said, "now I get to record them."

Today's political climate being what it is, with revelations continuing to trickle out about the depths of former President Donald Trump's conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him (it was not) and the lengths he and some supporters were willing to go to see that the will of the nation's voters was overturned, the Journal decided to start there with the candidates, asking who was the rightful winner of the 2020 election and which they believe to be a bigger issue nationally: voter fraud or voter suppression.

Cervantes said Joe Biden was the rightful winner in 2020, referring to efforts to promote the notion, without evidence, that the election was "marred by fraud and misconduct by elections officials" as the "Big Lie." Voter suppression, he said, is "unquestionably" the bigger issue nationally, pointing out that while election fraud is "extremely rare," "Big Lie" proponents are using the fear of election fraud to push voter suppression policies, like laws that restrict voting by mail or that prohibit elections officials from encouraging voter registration.

Nielsen was far less verbose in her response, saying "the President" was the rightful winner in 2020. "I believe voter suppression in some parts of the country are more problematic," she said. "Fraud is a concern for many but, locally, the integrity of our elections are maintained by following the laws, using trusted equipment and qualified public employees managing each aspect of the elections."

Hershberger said a majority of U.S. voters in 2020 voted for Joe Biden, a fact he says has been underscored by vote audits in Arizona and Georgia, as well as the "numerous" lawsuits brought by Trump's campaign and its supporters challenging the election results, none of which found widespread irregularities. He touted the transparency project as an important tool that brings "openness" to the local ballot-counting process. Having seen election processes close up, Hershberger said he's less concerned about fraud because there are multiple levels of "review and verification." "I am more concerned about voter suppression as it is easier for outside sources to manipulate, restrict and oppress using laws and lawsuits to achieve a political advantage, often by dishonest and disingenuous means," he said, pointing to the purging of voter rolls as an example of suppression efforts.

Recognizing the dual-nature of the position, the Journal also asked the candidates what they feel the biggest challenges facing the recorder's office are and how they plan to address them. All three candidates pointed to customer service.

"When people think of bureaucracy," Cervantes said. "they think of long lines, unresponsive staff and the expectation that they must know the right question to ask to get what they need. I plan to address the issue by empowering our employees with training and policies that consider user experiences. And we'll find efficiencies by revamping our websites and bolstering our online services." He pointed to the DMV as an example of of an institution that has harnessed technology to free up staff time to allow for a better customer experience.

Hershberger said he believes navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has "drastically impacted" the recorder's office, prompting the current administration to introduce an electronic recording system that allows documents to be submitted online, though he said training and time remain challenges. "In addition, the office has experienced staffing changes," he said. "right now, the office needs team building and cross training to meet the needs of the new recording method and customer service."

Having spent years on the customer side of things, Nielsen touted the office's recent improvements, pointing to the posting of indexes to its website, which allows folks to find deeds or other public records recorded since 1999 online, and the recent start of electronic recording. That, she said, "increases the efficiency in the office, leaving more time to help the public. Customer service is the main issue in the Recorder's Office I would like addressed. We are here to serve and we shall."

To see the candidates' full responses to the Journal's questions and survey — spoiler alert: Cervantes lists The Enrichiridion as his favorite book, while Hershberger went with A Separate Peace and Nielsen opted for "anything by local author J Lynn Bailey" — check out the online version of this story at And make sure to vote June 7.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@ Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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