Shasta County's quest to replace Dominion turns 'very dark'

Photo of Eric Ting
Shasta County Supervisors Tim Garman (left), Patrick Jones (center) and Mary Rickert are photographed during the Shasta County Board of Supervisors regular meeting inside the board chambers in Redding.

Shasta County Supervisors Tim Garman (left), Patrick Jones (center) and Mary Rickert are photographed during the Shasta County Board of Supervisors regular meeting inside the board chambers in Redding.

Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

After Shasta County ended its contract with Dominion Voting Systems over election fraud conspiracy theories, there were two options county leaders considered: 1) Enter an agreement with a different electronic voting system certified by the state of California, or 2) Attempt to count all ballots by hand  — which would come at a very steep cost and risk falling out of compliance with state law — and apparently hope that My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell pays the legal fees stemming from any possible lawsuits.

Guess which option the five-person board — now led by a conservative supermajority — chose.

"The whole thing is just hard to absorb and I'm in a little bit of shock," county elections chief Cathy Darling Allen told SFGATE on Tuesday evening, after the board voted 3-2 to hand-count all ballots. The vote came at the tail end of a laborious nine-hour meeting. 

"It's pretty clear the supervisors don’t quite understand what they’ve undertaken," Allen said.

Technically, the board had a third option, which was to re-enter its Dominion contract. During the highly contentious meeting, Supervisor Mary Rickert introduced a last-ditch resolution that would do just that, but she and colleague Tim Garman were voted down by Board President Patrick Jones as well as Supervisors Kevin Crye and Chris Kelstrom. Those three have cemented themselves as the board's ultraconservative bloc, and have voted together on all things Dominion.

The three supervisors decided that no electronic voting system can be trusted. Lindell, a prominent 2020 presidential election denier who has emerged as a central figure in the county's search for a Dominion replacement, previously warned county leaders that electronic voting machines are "all made with parts made over in China." Lindell met privately with Crye, and, after the Tuesday vote, said on his streaming show he's "going to cover" Shasta County if it gets sued by the state while trying to conduct a mass hand-count of ballots.

California law technically allows for the hand-counting of ballots, but state and federal law require that voters with disabilities have access to an electronic voting system. Jones, aware of this requirement, introduced a motion that would direct Allen's office to create a plan that would provide an electronic voting option for disabled voters, but require paper ballots that could be hand counted for the rest of the county. After the motion passed with support from Crye and Kelstrom, a visibly frustrated Allen bemoaned the lack of specificity.

"I'm not clear on next steps," she told Jones during the meeting. She told SFGATE afterward that she still isn't completely sure what Jones is asking for.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has already warned Shasta County that the California Secretary of State's Office believes that there are a variety of state and federal laws the county will risk violating unless it uses an approved electronic voting system. Garman, usually an ally of Jones, Crye and Kelstrom, was especially worried about the risk of lawsuits.

"I’m not a fan of machines either, but we cannot ditch a machine without having something in place," he said during the meeting. "I’m not going to open our county up to that liability."

Allen sent a letter to supervisors earlier Tuesday warning that a plan for countywide hand-counting would cost $1.6 million and require the hiring of approximately 1,300 new employees. These employees must be hired in a full-time capacity, and cannot be volunteers, per state law.

But arguments that a hand count would be prohibitively expensive were not persuasive to Jones, Crye and Kelstrom. The trio also seemed unconcerned about legal exposure, a sentiment made apparent during an exchange with conservative attorney Alexander Haberbush, who spoke at the meeting's public comment and said he was invited by the board.

Haberbush said it was his opinion that the county would be able to implement a county-wide hand count of ballots with minimal legal exposure, but that opinion is clearly not shared by Allen, Bonta, Rickert and Garman. Rickert demanded to know who had paid for Haberbush's trip to Shasta County, which he said he could not disclose because of "attorney-client privilege." (Rickert and Garman both said during the meeting that they did not invite Haberbush.)

Rickert said, "I'm thoroughly disgusted by this," and asked Jones whether he had knowledge of Haberbush's trip. When he replied, "I did not," she asked, "You can say that with a straight face?" It's not the first time Jones and Rickert have publicly quarrelled, as the two supervisors traded barbs during the January board meeting in which ties with Dominion were first severed.

The meeting also featured multiple heated public comment sessions in which residents criticized the board and one another. Generally, the room was pretty evenly divided between people supportive of the hand count and those infuriated the county was considering such a move at all.

"You're truly making Shasta County look like a bunch of fools to the rest of the nation," a resident named Judith said, before asking, "Where do you intend to find all this money? I don’t think Mike Lindell is going to pay for it."

Another resident named Suzanne said, "You have taken us to a very dark day in our history right now."

On the other side, speakers presented a number of inventive conspiracy theories regarding the 2020 presidential election, ranging from Chinese hacking to "memory cards" getting plugged into voting machines. Several people in favor of the hand-count pursued by the hard-right board members seemed unusually determined to prove their intelligence, with one resident asking for a "challenge of mental intellect," and another saying to hecklers, "You've been extremely rude and it shows your IQ."

Allen told SFGATE she has no idea what's going to happen from here. She said it's possible Bonta's office seeks to get involved in some way, and that the county is at real risk of not being able to adequately conduct special elections that could get scheduled for as early as August.

"But apparently the supervisors are willing to pony up the money, and what we need is the resources if they want to make this work," she said. "And maybe we can't make it work, but if we can't, it's their fault."

This developing story has been updated.


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