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A county in California swapped Dominion's electronic voting machines for hand counting

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Now to California, where state lawmakers are trying to block the first big hand-count election there in 40 years. It's in reaction to a move by right-wing conspiracy theorists in charge of Shasta County in Northern California. This spring, they said they were ditching electronic voting machines. Roman Battaglia of Jefferson Public Radio reports that the expense of doing that is becoming clear, and it is considerable.

ROMAN BATTAGLIA, BYLINE: The Democratic supermajority in California's legislature seems poised to pass a bill that would essentially ban hand-count elections in the state. It's aimed squarely at Shasta County, which this year, dropped Dominion electronic voting machines in favor of hand-counting ballots instead. Shasta County Supervisor Tim Garman says it's a sign the state is trying to prevent this from spreading to other counties.

TIM GARMAN: Shasta County is not our own country. We don't get to make all of our own laws. There are things we can and cannot do, and we've stepped way out of our lane with this.

BATTAGLIA: If it passes, Shasta County could have less than a month to completely change how they conduct their next election. The county has been preparing for months for its first major hand-count since 1972.

JOANNA FRANCESCUT: Good morning, everyone.

BATTAGLIA: On an early August morning, around 20 people are gathered on the empty first floor of an office in Redding. Joanna Francescut, the deputy clerk for Shasta County, is training them to count ballots entirely by hand.

FRANCESCUT: Thank you for being here today. We appreciate it.

BATTAGLIA: The last time Shasta County did a hand-count election, the population was less than half of what it is now. Temporary staff Tanner Johnson and Anne Silveria sort the ballots into different bins corresponding to the chosen candidate. For this pretend election, the candidates are music artists.

TANNER JOHNSON: Ready?

ANNE SILVERIA: We're ready.

JULIE BRAMMER: Yes, we're ready.

JOHNSON: Let's begin. And Beyonce - we have one, two...

BATTAGLIA: When the right-wing majority on Shasta County's Board of Supervisors cut its contract for electronic voting machines with Dominion, the company was still suing Fox News for defamation. It settled that suit in April for 787 million. Supervisor Kevin Crye said the county had the support of prominent election fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. Crye declined to comment for the story, but his actions don't sit well with fellow county supervisor Mary Rickert, who voted against returning to hand-count elections.

MARY RICKERT: Supervisor Crye reached out to Mike Lindell and was actually communicating with him during the board meeting while we were in session, which - I was very troubled by that.

BATTAGLIA: County Supervisor Tim Garman says he was shocked to learn that it'll cost around $1.6 million to hire the staff needed to count all the ballots in time.

GARMAN: That's not even going to include all the parts to it. You're going to have added costs for, where are we going to count those ballots? Where's that going to happen at, you know? It's cameras, security tables, chairs. You can go on down the line. How much is it really going to cost us? Not 1.6. That's going to be considerably more.

BATTAGLIA: Garman and others are worried about where this money will come from. The county is already facing a major staffing shortage. And an entire floor of the county jail has been closed for over a year because of it. Shasta County clerk Cathy Darling Allen says the far-right supervisors put their trust in unproven claims of election fraud.

CATHY DARLING ALLEN: Whoever it is that sold the board the concept that this is a cost-saving measure, you know, really was mistaken, frankly. And that's putting it very kindly. If they weren't mistaken, they were just lying. And I don't know which is true.

BATTAGLIA: Hand-counting will affect city governments, too. Redding, the largest city in Shasta County, pays the county elections department to run local elections. Julie Winter, a Redding City Council member, says they've learned election costs are expected to quadruple at a minimum because of hand-counting.

JULIE WINTER: So when you get a big chunk like that, $136,000 per election, we're going to have to set aside at least two to three times that per year, depending on what the election costs. There's really no other place to take that big of a chunk from. It's going to have to come from either police or fire.

BATTAGLIA: County Supervisor Mary Rickert says she's been in touch with other California counties where there's also curiosity about hand-counting.

RICKERT: I'm hoping that cooler heads prevail and that people really do the research and find out from the mistakes that have been made here that it was not a good decision.

BATTAGLIA: Back at the elections office in Redding, the temporary staff are wrapping up their mock hand-count of the ballots. Julie Brammer says she already understands why this work is exhausting.

BRAMMER: If your mind wanders for a second, you just - you know, you could check the wrong box or - I don't know. You really got to pay attention.

BATTAGLIA: Darling Allen came down to check on the progress with one of her supervisors, John Amacker.

JOHN AMACKER: Nineteen people, six hours, $500.

BATTAGLIA: Last November, there were almost 70,000 ballots cast in Shasta County. Darling Allen says they used to get early results out as the polls closed.

DARLING ALLEN: So you know how people check the website right at 8:05 to see who's ahead? Yeah. Zeros - we'll have zeros.

BATTAGLIA: We're not going to the know the results for...

DARLING ALLEN: Days. Days. Literally days.

BATTAGLIA: Even though she disagrees with the idea of hand-counting every ballot, she says she's trying her best to make it work with what she's been given. For NPR News, I'm Roman Battaglia in Shasta County, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Roman Battaglia
Roman earned a degree in Digital Communications from Oregon State University in 2019. He now works as a radio journalism intern at Jefferson Public Radio through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism at the University of Oregon.