The New Epicenter for the “Big Lie:” Is Shasta County the New Cochise County?
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, March 28, the conservative majority of the Shasta County, California Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to hand count all ballots during the county’s next election. This vote comes despite a warning from California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) that California and federal laws require electronic voting systems and concerns from the county recorder. If this all sounds eerily familiar to stories out of Cochise County, Arizona, during the 2022 midterm elections, that’s because it is. Shasta County is the latest red county in a blue state to allow conspiracy theories to drive policy making, leaving us all with the question: Is Shasta County the new Cochise County?
What’s happened so far in Shasta County?
Mistrust in electronic voting machines dates back to the 2020 election wherein former President Donald Trump and his acolytes promulgated and popularized unfounded conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines. Notably, new information in Dominion’s ongoing lawsuit against Fox News shows that the popular conservative news network allowed misinformation about Dominion to air despite fact checkers at the network finding the claims to be false. On Jan. 24, the conservative majority of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems and stated “You can’t put a price tag on voter trust.” Since the county ended its contract with Dominion, it had to devise a new plan for counting ballots, which then must be approved by May 9 in order to comply with California and federal laws.
On Feb. 27, Bonta and Deputy Attorney General Jay Russell sent Shasta County a letter notifying the board of its obligations pertaining to election administration. The letter states that “[a]bsent an electronic voting system, a county will not be able to fulfill the accessibility requirements of federal and state law” and advises the county to “proceed swiftly and efficiently to enter a contract with a certified electronic voting system vendor well in advance of the March 2024 statewide primary election or any intervening election.” The letter concluded by stating that failing to enter a contract with an electronic voting system vendor would “likely render Shasta County in violation of numerous federal and state laws.”
One month later on March 27, Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen wrote a letter to the board advising it to either reinstate its previous contract or enter into a new one. Allen conducted analysis on the option of having ballots counted via a manual hand count, but concluded that “manual tallies at this scale are error prone, complex, and resource intensive. As a result, more hand counting is not always better. Instead, an approach that incorporates the benefits of optical scan technology and employs selective manual tally as a check is the wisest approach.” Additionally, Allen warned that if the supervisors took the drastic step of adopting a full hand count, the process would require “at a minimum…$1,651,209.68 and 1300 staff members” to implement.
On March 28, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors discussed their options: either negotiate a contract with different voting machine companies, rescind its earlier decision to end the contract with Dominion or use an alternative method such as hand counting ballots. The board voted 3-2 to hand count all ballots. Although hand counts are an important tool for recounts or confirming tabulator machine accuracy, using them as a primary counting method is both time consuming and subject to human error.
Is this Cochise County 2.0?
The vote to hand count all ballots in Shasta County did not happen in a vacuum. It is part of a larger trend wherein election deniers or conspiracy theorists are elevated to public office and use their positions to foment distrust and promulgate misinformation and disinformation about election procedures that are credibly proven to be safe and secure. Before, during and after the 2022 midterm elections, Cochise County (a small red county in Arizona) was embroiled in controversy and faced several lawsuits after the county supervisors attempted different hand counts, sued their own election director, refused to certify the results of the election and transferred election oversight to the partisan county recorder. All of this drama was largely rooted in conspiracies about the security of electronic voting machines and election skepticism.
While it is not clear what will unfold in the immediate future in Shasta County, it is clear that the county’s conservative majority is taking a page out of the Cochise County playbook and creating chaos in the name of “election integrity.” According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, during a Feb. 28 meeting, Shasta County Supervisor Kevin Cyre stated that he reached out to conspiracy theorist and election denier Mike Lindell (who is facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems) “about the plan to return to hand-counting votes;” reporting from ABC 7 confirmed that Cyre took a trip to visit Lindell in Minnesota. Unfortunately, county officials are sometimes swayed by the conspiracies about Dominion voting machines, the “Big Lie” and other election conspiracy theories. Elections in Shasta County are not currently scheduled until the May 2024 presidential primary. However, if things unfold as they did in Cochise County, it will be a long and litigious road to get there.
Read the California attorney general’s letter here.