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Shasta County considers counting votes by hand in latest election fight

A number of Shasta county voter registration applications held in an upright stand. The stand reads "Register to vote"
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Voter registration applications for Shasta County

Shasta County is leaving itself without a way to conduct elections for now. The county’s board of supervisors voted Tuesday to look at creating their own voting system.

County Supervisors canceled their contract with Dominion Voting Systems last month over unproven concerns of voter fraud.

Now, Board Chair Patrick Jones wants to get rid of machines all-together, and count votes entirely by hand.

Deputy Secretary of State Susan Lapsley came up to Shasta County on Tuesday to answer questions about Jone’s proposal to eliminate voting machines.

“People make mistakes,” Lapsley said. “It’s hard, it’s tough to sit here during the board meeting but can you imagine sitting at a table for eight hours and doing this [hand-counting ballots]? It’s tough and it’s a lot of hard work.”

Lapsley said hand-counting is less accurate and more expensive than machines. Examples in other states backs that up.

Lapsley also mentioned a hand-count effort in Nye County, Nevada last year, where the error rate was estimated to be around 25% after the first day.

Shasta County supervisors voted three to two to direct staff to explore an alternative option to cast and count ballots. They’re expecting staff to return with a plan within a month, because any pilot voting system needs to be submitted for approval by the Secretary of State nine months in advance of an election.

The next election is the March 2024 presidential primary, although County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen said some municipalities have asked for special elections in August and October. That means an approved voting system would need to be available before any local election could take place.

Board Member Kevin Crye has been the swing vote for election matters. In Tuesday’s meeting, he voted to accept a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit focused on voting modernization. The $1.5 million grant would go to the elections department, which said they’d use it towards buying a permanent office building instead of leasing out their current space.

But Crye joined the other side in voting to explore a voting pilot program. He said a big concern has been the threat of lawsuits over a possible voting system that isn’t certified by the state and doesn’t meet the needs of disabled voters.

During the meeting, Crye dropped a surprise for everyone, saying he’d been in touch with Mike Lindell, a prominent election fraud conspiracy theorist. Crye said Lindell supports this effort in Shasta County and will put some money in an escrow account to be used to pay for legal fees, should the county face a lawsuit over this proposed voting system.

Lindell is currently being sued by Dominion Voting System for $1.3 billion. The company claims Lindell promoted false claims that Dominion voting machines were rigged during the 2020 election, all in an effort to boost sales at his pillow company.

Crye did not mention how much money Lindell was putting into an escrow account, and wouldn’t answer further clarifying questions from Board Member Mary Rickert.

“It just seems, in my mind, crazy to change horses in the middle of all this when we don’t have something settled on the other end,” Rickert said.

Many residents, including the county clerk, had serious concerns that going without a certified voting system would deprive people with disabilities of their right to vote independently.

That right was enshrined in federal law in 2002 as the Help America Vote Act.

It requires every polling place to have at least one machine that allows people with disabilities – such as blindness or requiring a wheelchair – to vote independently and secretly, just like everyone else.

The costs to change voting systems could be over $1 million, including the cost to remove leased equipment from Dominion and re-train staff on using the new system.

“This is a heavy lift on top of our regular duties,” said County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen.

Board Member Crye proposed going back to Lindell and asking him to pay for the removal of Dominion voting equipment, priced at around $78,000.

That proposal received harsh criticism from Rickert and Board Member Tim Garman over the optics of an election fraud conspiracy theorist funding elections-related matters in the county.

“You’re trying to save the county by putting it up for sale,” said Garman.

The board ultimately decided to take no action on picking a new voting system, by a vote of 3-2.

The county will officially terminate its contract with Dominion Voting Systems after a local election set for March 7 in Shasta Lake.

Because Shasta County does not have an approved voting pilot system in place, and they haven't signed a contract with a new vendor, the county cannot currently run any elections.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.