California Bill Curbing Ill-Advised Hand Count Plans in Shasta County Heads to Governor

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Sept. 8, the California Senate passed Assembly Bill 969 — which would change how counties handle contracts and plans for voting systems. The bill now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who is expected to sign the legislation into law.

A.B. 969 comes after Shasta County, California, a red county in the northern part of the state, voted to cancel its contract for voting machines with Dominion Voting Systems and instead, hand count ballots in all future elections. The 3-2 vote by the right-wing county board of supervisors left the county without a plan to count ballots, or an approved vendor to accommodate voters with disabilities, creating considerable uncertainty about whether the county will be able to conduct future elections in compliance with all relevant state and federal laws. 

To remedy this issue, state legislators introduced A.B. 969 to prevent other counties from taking similar steps and ensure stability in the conduct of California elections ahead of 2024. As state Rep. Gail Pellerin (D), the bill’s author who served as Santa Cruz County’s chief elections official for three decades, explained it, “Hand counts are complex, imprecise, expensive and resource intensive. Research has consistently shown that humans are poor at completing rote, repetitive tasks.”

Tim Garman, one of the two county supervisors who opposed the switch to hand counting, explained his relief at the bill’s passage: “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.”

Under A.B. 969, counties would be prohibited from canceling a contract for a voting system unless a replacement contract and transition plan are already in place. The bill would ensure that counties are prepared to conduct elections at all times and avoid the uncertainty currently plaguing Shasta County.

Shasta County’s decision to cancel its contract with Dominion is just one of many outgrowths of right-wing conspiracy theories regarding voting machines. Last year, Cochise County, Arizona tried repeatedly to hand count all ballots in the midterm elections, embroiling itself in a protracted legal conflict. Earlier this year, Arizona Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli (R) sent a letter requesting that all Arizona counties comply with onerous voting machine requirements that would effectively ban all tabulators in the state.

If Newsom signs the bill as expected, it will take effect immediately and Shasta County will have to use the electronic voting system provided by Hart InterCivic in the upcoming Nov. 7 election, rather than hand counting ballots for the first time. However, Patrick Henry, the county board of supervisors chair, has said the county will sue, once again citing misguided and debunked far-right conspiracies.

Read A.B. 969 here.

Track the status of A.B. 969 here