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Why Shasta County is at the center of California voting, again

Voters wait to cast their ballots outside the Shasta County Elections Department on Nov. 3, 2020.
Mike Chapman
Record Searchlight/USA Today Network via Reuters
Voters wait to cast their ballots outside the Shasta County Elections Department on Nov. 3, 2020.

Normally an election to set up a fire district and fill one school board seat in a county with just 112,000 registered voters wouldn’t get statewide attention.

But the Nov. 7 election in Shasta County is far from normal and will be closely watched — including by the Secretary of State’s office.

Shasta County’s Board of Supervisors has been embroiled in a series of battles between its conservative and more moderate members — all of whom are Republican. In January, the board voted 3-2 to cancel its contract with Dominion Voting for ballot-counting machines, which were the focus of unproven allegations about election fraud. The cancellation has prompted outcry at board meetings and a recall effort against Supervisor Kevin Crye, who recall proponents say was the swing vote in the decision.

In response to the contract termination, the Legislature passed a bill — which went into effect as soon as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it on Oct. 4 — that limits hand-counting of votes to narrow circumstances, none of which apply to Shasta County’s upcoming election. The bill prohibits a manual vote count in regular elections with more than 1,000 registered voters, or special elections with more than 5,000 registered voters.  

And while early voting has been underway for the election since Oct. 9, some voter groups are raising the red flag that the county may not comply — and are urging Secretary of State Shirley Weber to enforce the law.

The letter — sent last week by six voting rights and good government groups, including California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of California — notes that Shasta County Board of Supervisors Chairperson Patrick Henry Jones made “various public statements indicating an intention not to follow” the new law. The groups say that even if the county does comply, there is “a high risk of voter confusion, distrust, and disenfranchisement due to the spread of misinformation and disinformation.”

They’re calling on the Secretary of State’s office to:

  • Remind supervisors that Shasta County is required to follow federal and state laws in conducting elections;
  • Arrange for staff to monitor the Nov. 7 and March 5 elections;
  • Provide assistance to the county’s registrar of voters. 

While her office didn’t confirm whether it would send staff to monitor the final day of voting, Secretary of State Shirley Weber did send a letter Friday to the Shasta board to debunk the claim that the election isn’t subject to the new law because it was “grandfathered in.” Weber wrote: “Such a claim is wholly without merit and has no basis in law .… I expect that you will uphold your obligation to comply with the law. Failing that, my office stands ready to take any actions necessary to ensure that Shasta County conducts all elections in accordance with state law.”

Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen said early voting has proceeded without incident. She said her office was pleasantly surprised to see the advocates’ letter: “We think a lot more sunshine always helps.”

Jones told CalMatters he plans to continue discussing legal action with the board of supervisors after a law firm the county initially hired affirmed that the state law applies to Shasta County. But any further legal action is unlikely to happen before the Nov. 7 election, in which state-approved Hart tabulation machines are being used.

Still, Jones referred to them as “unauthorized, breach-of-contract Hart machines,” saying the board was led to believe the machines had no electronic tabulation capabilities. He’s focused instead on the March primary and said he plans to discuss future legal action at a supervisors meeting Tuesday.

Mary Rickert, one of the supervisors who was in favor of retaining the Dominion machines, said the concerns raised by the voter advocacy groups were legitimate. “I was very pleased that they brought it to the attention of Sacramento, because, quite honestly, I do think there is reason for concern,” she said.

She said she was also concerned about the safety of the registrar of voters and the staff, stating: “It’s been a volatile situation for a long time. I am concerned about the welfare of these citizens of Shasta County — the people that work at the clerk’s office.” 

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Sameea Kamal is a reporter at CalMatters covering the state Capitol and California politics. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist of Color fellows, and previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.