A Central Valley politician was charged with voter fraud. Right-wing conspiracies took over


As the polls closed in California on Super Tuesday, Jim Hicks stood watch in the parking lot of a community center while election officials wearing red vests retrieved ballots from a drop-off box.

He jiggled the handle of the metal container when they were done to ensure it was locked and peeked his head into the white van holding boxes of ballots that would be transferred to the San Joaquin County registrar of voters to be counted.

“We just need to have eyes on things after everything that’s been going on,” Hicks said as he rushed to his SUV to tail officials down dark farmland back roads to more drop boxes where ballots were waiting to be collected, all part of his duties as a self-appointed election observer.

Hicks, a real estate agent from Lodi, believes California’s universal vote-by-mail process is fraught with fraud risks, echoing unfounded messaging from the far right that election officials nationwide have worked to combat since Donald Trump and his allies began blaming his 2020 presidential loss on claims of fraud that have been shot down by numerous courts.

That paranoia is difficult to dismiss in this part of California’s Central Valley, though, after a local politician was arrested on allegations of a slew of crimes involving election fraud.

Former Lodi City Council member Shakir Khan pleaded “no contest” in January to felony charges, including election fraud, after the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office said it found 41 sealed, completed ballots in his home and about 70 people registered to vote using his address, phone number or email.

The alleged scheme, which stems from Khan’s run for City Council in 2020, is just one piece of a complex criminal case in which he also faces charges for illegal gambling, money laundering, tax evasion and Employment Development Department fraud.

Officials seemed to foresee the potential fallout after the years-long investigation, reiterating that Khan, a 34-year-old “no party preference” voter who has lived among Lodi’s vineyards since he was a child, did not appear to have ties to any broader voter-fraud plot.

“I want to make it clear that this investigation has only uncovered criminal activity in our county here, in a local election,” San Joaquin County Sheriff Patrick Withrow said at a news conference last year announcing Khan’s arrest. “It has nothing to do with and has no impact on any state or federal elections that we know of.”

Still, the case has drawn the attention of national conservative commentators, supercharged a group of local right-wing activists, sowed voter distrust in an already chaotic political environment and pushed the county to spend thousands of dollars on election security measures such as new ballot boxes and cameras to monitor them.

For dedicated skeptics like Hicks, Khan’s case is proof that “more sophisticated operatives” are gaming elections and going unnoticed. Khan is merely “an amateur who got caught,” Hicks said, and there are “way more” like him.

“I believe that what happened to Mr. Khan only solidified what we already seriously suspected,” he said.

For Olivia Hale, San Joaquin County’s chief election official, the timing of a rare case like Khan’s — as voter fraud conspiracies have proliferated across the country — has been a nightmare.

“The narrative is continuing no matter what we do,” she said.

Khan’s case isn’t like many of the unfounded conspiracies promoted by the far right. There were no “fake” voters or dead people registered to vote, according to San Joaquin County deputies, who said Khan’s focus was winning his own election to the nonpartisan Lodi City Council, which oversees a population of about 67,000.

But the case alarmed officials and local Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Let today’s guilty plea send a message loud and clear, especially as we enter 2024: Any attempt to alter or undermine our electoral process and our democratic institutions in San Joaquin County will be dealt with immediately and to the fullest extent of the law,” Dist. Atty. Ron Freitas said at a press conference in January.

While running for City Council in 2020, Khan pressured people to vote for him, sometimes registering them to vote, filling out ballots for them, forging their signatures and collecting their information without their knowledge of his intent to illegally vote on their behalf, according to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the investigation that led to his arraignment last year.

Khan’s “no contest” plea does not include an admission of guilt, and he has in the past denied the allegations. Khan is not in jail and is awaiting sentencing.

His attorney did not return requests for comment from The Times.

Some of Khan’s alleged fraud victims were elderly and, like him, Pakistani immigrants, unfamiliar with the American voting process, according to police.

California’s voting system didn’t immediately flag the ballots tied to Khan because the people being registered were real citizens with legitimate information, according to Hale, who was appointed in 2022 as the San Joaquin County registrar of voters.

Since Khan’s arrest, Hale has worked to assuage a seemingly endless list of concerns about fraud from a small group of regulars at county meetings and some Republican elected officials sympathetic to their demands.

She has beefed up the ballot signature verification process; zoned in on multiple voters registered to single addresses, in cases such as intergenerational homes; and opened her office to anyone with concerns about so-called ballot harvesting, a process — legal in California but allegedly abused by Khan — that allows voters to give their ballots to other people to turn in.

Hale worked with the county sheriff’s office to launch a voter fraud hotline and utilizes an election advisory committee created by the San Joaquin Board of Supervisors to “reform the public’s perception of the integrity of the electoral process.”

She does so even as she is staunch in her confidence in the county’s voting process, reiterating that there is no evidence that Khan’s case was anything other than an isolated event that was stopped because of the system’s checks and balances. Some of the accusations circulating in her community are “nonsense,” she said, but she welcomes skepticism and accountability as part of healthy government.

“I have an obligation to every single voter in San Joaquin County,” she said. “I believe so much in what we do in elections and how safe and secure it is, and how hard we work to keep it going in the right direction at every cost.”

For people like Molly Watkins, a self-described “farm wife” from the rural city of Linden, the county’s efforts are not enough.

Watkins was at a warehouse near the Stockton airport late into election night this month, watching officials in color-coded vests identifying them as “inspectors” and “supervisors” sift through yellow bins of bagged ballots. She was convinced, though, that her monitoring wouldn’t do much good.

“This is all smoke and mirrors,” she said as she kept an eye on the movement of ballots. Steps away, Hale gave a tour to a group of similarly concerned residents. “There is no transparency in the system.”

In 2021, California became the eighth state to permanently move to mail-in ballots following COVID-19 shutdowns — a move celebrated by Democrats, as research shows it increased voter turnout in 2020, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

But Republicans nationwide have alleged that the process is inferior to voting in person and less secure.

Watkins, who ominously refers to “the deep state,” has attended numerous local meetings since Khan’s arrest to demand changes to the election system. She wants the county to fight state law and do away with ballot drop boxes altogether. She mistrusts voting machine technology and is pushing county officials to revert to a system in which ballots are counted by hand.

Unlike in Shasta County, where a similar movement is playing out, San Joaquin is not a Republican stronghold, and voters here elected President Biden over Trump in 2020.

Election fraud is rare, but skepticism of the Democratic process can be a good thing, said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan election watchdog group.

Alexander has seen a shift in her decades of election work and said that while “false narratives” about fraud shouldn’t drive the conversation, California officials should not ignore them.

“There is a stubborn minority of voters that are subscribing to election fraud conspiracy theories who are very vocal, and even though I don’t think the general public agrees with those theories, they still resonate,” she said. “It’s definitely taken a toll on voter confidence across the board.”

Alexander said the Khan case isn’t proof of greater fraud but proof that anyone who attempts it will be punished.

“It is one example of an election crime that’s being prosecuted. It doesn’t mean that it’s rampant; it means that the process is working,” she said. “That sends a message to anybody else who might try to cheat the process that it’s a losing proposition.”

San Joaquin County Supervisor Steve Ding, a Republican, says ballot boxes are “rife for mischief.” But he admits the issue has spiraled out of control in his community, saying “everybody needs to take a breath” and “back off” Hale, who has faced personal attacks as the elections chief.

“It’s cast a shadow,” Ding said of the Khan case. “Unfortunately, it’s become a partisan issue rather than a good government issue. It’s no longer about whether it works or doesn’t. People have drawn sides.”

At a San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting last week, people rose for public comment to voice concerns about the March 5 primary election, alleging that Hale was rigging votes to help someone who attends her church get elected to the Stockton City Council.

Hale denies the claims and pointed out that the candidate in question is not projected to win the race.



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