Legal battle over tallying votes brews as Shasta County's November special election looms

By David Benda,
Redding Record Searchlight,
October 12, 2023


Will Shasta County get special dispensation from a new California law that essentially bans tallying votes by hand except in the tiniest towns?

Patrick Jones, who chairs the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, insists that votes will be counted by hand and has threatened litigation if the state tries to stop the county by invoking the provisions of AB 969.

Jones has suggested that because the county developed a hand-count system that the Secretary of State reviewed before AB 969 became law, it should go ahead with its plan.

The new law bans the manual counting of ballots in regular elections with more than 1,000 registered voters and in special elections with more than 5,000 registered voters.

There is a special election scheduled for Nov. 7 in Shasta County. Ballots and voter information guides have been mailed to eligible voters.

Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin (D-Santa Cruz), who authored the bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Oct. 4, said Shasta County will need to comply.

“AB 969, which is now in effect, limits the elections at which ballots may be manually counted. There is nothing in the bill that exempts Shasta County from its provisions, or allows its manual count plan to be ‘grandfathered in.’ Because more than 5,000 registered voters are eligible in its November election, Shasta would be in violation of the law if they conducted a hand count for that election,” Pellerin said in an email to the Record Searchlight.

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“Beyond that, we’re unable to comment on legal strategy,” the AG's press office concluded in the email.

Shasta County supervisors’ next regularly scheduled public meeting is Oct. 17.

Jones said he has contacted “several other attorneys” about the legalities of the new law. About a month before the bill became law, Jones told the Record Searchlight that because it was an urgency statute, it violated the California Constitution.

Jones declined to name the outside attorneys he spoke to.

“If county counsel says (AB 969) does not affect Shasta County … then we continue on with a hand count,” Jones said. “If counsel says it does affect Shasta County and election tabulation, I will push to immediately litigate against the state of California and ask the judge for a stay.”

Interim County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr did not return a phone message seeking comment.

County Executive Officer David Rickert did not reply to an email seeking comment.

Hiring an outside law firm to sue the state would cost the county even more money in its quest to hand count ballots, a crusade being led by Jones and the board’s far-right majority.

Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen announced on Sept. 25 that the Secretary of State has reviewed the county’s manual tally plan.

And on Oct. 5, a day after AB 969 became law, Darling Allen’s office hosted an open house to demonstrate the new hand-count system to the public. She scheduled the open house a week before AB 969 became law.

On the day Newsom signed AB 969, Darling Allen told the Record Searchlight that she will follow the law. When told that Jones said he wanted to hand count ballots, Darling Allen said she wanted to find out more information about how the county is required to proceed under the new law.

"I am the independently elected county clerk and registrar of voters, and I consider the board my partner, and they have to follow the law, OK? They may not think so. I can't control other people," Darling Allen said.

Darling Allen has not replied to two phone messages and an email seeking comment for this story.

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They compare it to what is happening with the Fountain Wind renewable energy project, which Shasta County rejected in October 2021. But, thanks to a new state law passed months after the county denied the permit, the applicant reapplied to the California Energy Commission for a use permit to operate in Shasta County.

“The difference here is the Constitution grants the power to the states to run elections, not the local government,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

Darling Allen chairs the foundation’s board of directors.

The California Voter Foundation did not take a position on AB 969.

Ryan Ronco is board president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials. He also is Placer County’s registrar of voters. (Full Story)