In Shasta county, a conservative stronghold of 180,000 in the far north of blue California, a new vision for elections is taking shape: paper ballots, no machines, and results tallied entirely by hand.
It’s a vision predicated on the false belief that voting machines helped to steal the presidency from Donald Trump, and that the systems by which millions of Americans vote are unsafe. But in Shasta, they just might make that vision reality.
Shasta became a hotbed for far-right politics in the pandemic years, and election deniers have found allies on the county’s governing body, the board of supervisors. In March the board’s hard-right majority cut ties with Dominion Voting Systems, the company at the center of baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud.
Last week the supervisors took steps to replace it with a hand-count system. The county ended its contract with Dominion before establishing a replacement and now, with a potential special election months away and the presidential primary a year out, it has no voting system in place as it embarks on a plan to create an entirely new system from scratch.
The registrar of voters, the elected official who oversees voting in the county, warned it would be a challenging and time-consuming effort – requiring more than 1,200 new workers at a cost of at least $1.6m – and still far less accurate than the machines the county has used for years. The deputy secretary of state has warned the county could violate multiple federal and state laws by not selecting a certified voting system. But the board of supervisors moved ahead.
The county’s decision could have long-lasting consequences for the region and provide a framework for election deniers on how to advance their agenda across the US, all while giving oxygen to false claims that the nation’s voting technology is compromised.
“We are being used as a guinea pig by these people,” said Mary Rickert, one of two county supervisors who voted against the decision, referring to Mike Lindell and other proponents of lies about election fraud. “It’s very disconcerting to me and it’s very troubling we have supervisors playing into this grand plan of being at the forefront of this movement.”
This comes after years of political turmoil in the region, which saw a bitter backlash to pandemic restrictions that coalesced into a thriving anti-establishment movement. An ultra-rightwing majority, backed by a Connecticut millionaire and local militia groups, gained control of the board of supervisors and aggressively pushed their agenda, ousting county bureaucrats and ushering in a “devastating” exodus of workers.
The upheaval has drawn national attention, including from prominent figures in the election denial movement, such as Mike Lindell. The MyPillow chief executive and a leading promoter of falsehoods about election fraud pledged to support the county’s efforts and met with a supervisor. But as outsiders relish the chaos, residents say a small but vocal minority with fringe beliefs has taken near total control of the county and created deep divisions.
‘The process isn’t broken’
The turmoil was starkly evident during a rowdy, 11-hour public meeting last week during which the board of supervisors addressed the voting system. With security guards flanking the entrance, the board chambers in Redding began filling up before 9am, leaving many standing at the edges of the room. The lengthy public comment period was filled with applause, confrontation, shouts and boos.
There was a large showing of speakers who begged the county to reverse its previous decision to cut ties with Dominion, even just temporarily, before thousands of voters were disenfranchised. “Let our election workers do their jobs. This is my constitutional right to vote and I hate it being messed with,” one speaker said.
The very supervisors who claim Dominion machines are not to be trusted were elected by voters using those same machines, several people pointed out.
Others promoted debunked conspiracy theories about election fraud and argued a manual tally is “our only hope”.
“Sacramento is watching our every move,” one speaker told the board, urging them to continue with plans for a handcounting system. Another said replacing Dominion with another state-approved system is “akin to changing heroin dealers”.
They described the supervisors as “courageous” leaders standing up to election interference, which experts have repeatedly proven did not happen. Doing away with the county’s voting system and replacing it with a hand-count is achievable, they argued, and could be done with volunteers, both Democrats and Republicans.
But others pushed back on the feasibility of such a plan. Cathy Darling Allen, the registrar of voters, reminded the board that state law requires anyone handling ballots be a county employee who has undergone fingerprinting and a background check, meaning volunteers are not an option. The county, which currently employs more than 2,000 people, would need at least 1,200 additional temporary employees, the funding for their pay, and a space large enough to accommodate them.
Her office laid out its concerns in an analysis provided to the board, which warned that a manual tally is “exceptionally complex and error prone” and would “introduce very serious risk” that the county would miss state deadlines, and could ultimately disenfranchise voters.
“The statutes require that all California voters be able to cast a ballot privately and independently. A voting system that includes technology is the only way available to comply with those laws,” Allen wrote in a letter to supervisors. “While my office is full of extremely competent and prepared professionals, even we cannot perform miracles.”
The supervisors in favor of hand-counting repeatedly sought the input of a conservative lawyer from southern California, who first claimed to have been invited by the board until several board members denied any such invitation. He declined to say who funded his trip, citing “attorney client privilege”. Several board members turned to him for questions about elections law and the resources needed for hand-counting in the county, rather than Allen, who has served in her role for nearly 20 years.
The board ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of having the elections office look at developing a hand-counting process and contracting with an elections technology company for the use of machines that will be available for people with disabilities. The county’s process will have to be approved by the secretary of state’s office, which could take as long as a year.
After the decision, a sense of defeat hung over the room.
“We have already cancelled the contract with Dominion,” said Patrick Jones, the board chair and one of three supervisors to vote in favor of that plan, before the vote. “We are trying to restore trust to all voters.”
“You’re not,” someone shouted from the audience.
Allen told the board she was not clear on the next steps and how to proceed before exiting the chambers. Shasta could see a special election as soon as August, and by not selecting a system on Tuesday, the county risks disenfranchising its citizens, Allen warned in her letter to the board.
“I feel played,” she told the Guardian after leaving the meeting. “I’ve been hearing this for two and a half years. This is a process that is not broken. Because of disinformation we’re having this conversation again.”
Rickert, who tried unsuccessfully to get her fellow supervisors to reverse their decision on Dominion, lamented the situation the county and its citizens are in.
“People need to get involved, they need to get engaged and they need to stand up for their rights. They’ve lost the ability to vote,” she said. “In this county, in the United States of America, they don’t have the ability to vote.”
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