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Shasta County scrapped its voting machines and didn’t replace them. A new bill would bar that

Lezlie Sterling/lsterling@sacbee.com

Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin, D-Santa Cruz, knows from her 27 years as County Clerk that voting is “sacred.” She believes it’s crucial that ballots be counted “accurately and securely and transparently and accessibly.”

That’s why Pellerin, who was elected to the state legislature in 2020, wrote Assembly Bill 969. It’s a direct response to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors’ January decision to end its contract with Dominion Voting Systems, which then-president Donald Trump and many of his supporters baselessly accused of rigging the 2020 election in favor of President Joe Biden.

The bill would effectively bar any county Board of Supervisors from ending a voting system contract “without a transition plan and a replacement contract in place.”

The Board of Supervisors in Shasta voted 3-2 to terminate their contract with Dominion without such a replacement , but with a promise to pivot to a manual tally.

“As a former county clerk, that would be horrifying,” Pellerin told The Bee. “To be a year away from a presidential primary and (the Board) saying, ‘You can’t use your voting system. Figure something else out.’”

Cathy Darling Allen, Shasta County Clerk, said she supports the bill.

There are nearly 112,000 registered voters in Shasta County; close to 69,000 voted in the 2022 elections last fall, and 94,000 in the last presidential election in 2020.

“For 112,000 voters, (hand counting) is just not feasible without spending a lot of money and taking a lot of time and and requiring a lot of people to do that job,” Pellerin said.

Shasta County Chief fiscal officer Erin Bertain warned the board in April that the shift to manual tally could cost the county at least $3 million through the 2024-2025 fiscal year, because the county will likely need to hire 1,500 ballot counters for the 2024 election. The conservative board members who voted in support of the change say that amount is a gross overestimation; Supervisor Kevin Crye — the current target of a recall — told The Bee last month that “those predictions have 1,000% been overestimated.”

“Hand counting paper ballots is not an efficient system, it is not accurate....” Pellerin said. Plus, it’s logistically a nightmare — especially in such a big state where so many voters criticized how long it took to get election results last year.

Changing a voting system is not simply a matter of changing one part of the election process, said Pellerin, who called the Shasta County Board’s decision “an attack on democracy.”

The process of preparing for an election is a complicated one: “You have all your instruction materials, you have to accept the voting equipment, you have to do Logic and Accuracy Testing before and after ... to make sure that the system’s working correctly,” Pellerin said.

“You have to have all your training materials, you have to have all your voter materials. Sometimes your voting materials have to be translated into multiple languages. And then you have to train your staff as well on how to use this new voting system.”

All of this takes time and resources that many counties simply don’t have unless they’ve methodically planned and budgeted for it.

The bill passed in the Assembly in April, with nine Republicans voting against it. It will head to the Senate.

During her tenure as Santa Cruz County Clerk, Pellerin recalled a group of voters asking for a hand tally because they were distrusting of the voting system.

“I said, Okay, you pick any precinct and I will hand count it, start to finish, every single ballot, and you can watch and observe.’ And it took us a day and a half to do just one precinct. And it was 100% accurate,” she said.