In many elections, the suspense comes from wondering which candidate is going to win.
In Shasta County, the question everyone is hanging on is: Will the local election next Tuesday bring unrest or even violence?
The county of about 200,000 people on the northern rim of the Central Valley made national news last spring when a far-right majority on the Board of Supervisors, swept up in unproven voter fraud claims, decided to dump Dominion voting machines and hand-count its ballots instead.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials then stepped in to stop the plan. On Oct. 4, Newsom signed a law limiting counties from hand-counting ballots. In response, Patrick Jones, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said he favored such a count anyway, declaring in the local newspaper: “I believe [the new law] does not affect Shasta County.”
But the county’s longtime registrar-recorder, Cathy Darling Allen — the only Democrat elected to countywide office — has begged to differ. Now, as a portion of the county’s voters prepare to go to the polls to pick a school board member for the Gateway Unified School District and to decide whether to adopt a new fire protection district, Darling Allen said she plans to follow state law as she counts the votes. And that, she said, means using machines the county has bought to replace the Dominion ones.
That stance has infuriated some county residents who subscribe to conspiracy theories that elections have been riddled with fraud because of technology. Many in the area also view the legislation as an example of blue state liberals trying to control local affairs in deep red Shasta.
“It kinda fries my muffins because Shasta County is the reddest, most Republican county in the state of California. Democrats can have the rest of the state,” Kim Moore told the Board of Supervisors this week. “If you don’t like it, get the hell out! Republicans deserve at least one county in this state that belongs to us!”
Some residents, including some supervisors, have directed their ire at Darling Allen, who has served as elected registrar in the county for two decades, until recently with little controversy. They have charged that she can’t be trusted to run a fair election.
“I’m getting sick and tired of this registrar,” said a caller, who gave his name as “Stones,” on the podcast “Jefferson State of Mine” on Oct. 8. “Every time she has discretion for a fair and transparent anything, she chooses the opposite of fairness and transparency. I’m getting really tired of it.”
“Well, you know, there has to be a way to get rid of her. I mean, period,” answered host Terry Rapoza, a leader in the State of Jefferson movement for conservative Northern California counties to secede from the rest of the state.
Amid such heated rhetoric, Darling Allen said she is hoping for a drama-free election but is preparing, along with local law enforcement, “to deal with any potential situation.”
“Hopefully, we have a peaceful election, and we count the votes, and that’s the end of it,” she said. But “it doesn’t escape me that we need to be cognizant and prepared to protect the safety of the ballots, our staff and voters.”
Unrest has hit county vote counts in the past. In June 2022, someone hung a trail camera — the kind hunters use to track wildlife — in the alley behind the county registrar’s office to monitor elections staff.
During that year’s November election, right-wing activist Richard Gallardo, who once unsuccessfully tried to place all of the county supervisors under citizen’s arrest, tried to push past a barricade in the alley behind the registrar’s office. He demanded to be let in — until police arrived.
Darling Allen said she sees all the pushback as part of a national “effort to distract, damage and destroy the election process. And we’re trying our best not to allow this. … But there is absolutely a national effort to destroy the election administration as we know it.”
Dominion is one of the largest suppliers of voting machines and software in the U.S. and has been a focus of unfounded claims of voter fraud pushed by former President Trump and his allies after his failed 2020 reelection bid.
The new far-right board majority’s decision to dump the company’s machines and embrace hand-counting was supported by prominent figures in the national election-denying movement. Mike Lindell, chief executive of My Pillow and a prominent pro-Trump election denier, praised county officials as trailblazers and enthused: “Every county should do that.”
Others were horrified. Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin, the former registrar of Santa Cruz County, quickly introduced legislation to limit hand-counting of votes.
That put the county on a collision course with the state.
“We made this decision before the Legislature acted,” Jones, the board chair, told ABC News. “If they try to stop us from hand-counting, then there will be litigation.” He also spoke about taking recently purchased voting machinery out of service.
In response to an email from The Times with questions about those comments, Jones responded with a single word: “No.” He did not respond to a request for clarification.
Supervisor Mary Rickert, one of two board members who voted unsuccessfully to keep the Dominion machines, has said she thinks a fight with the state would be “a waste of time and money.”
“Litigating this particular issue with the state of California is going to cost a tremendous amount of money, and the chances of us winning are practically non-existent,” she told her board colleagues last month. “I’m tired of being the embarrassment of this state. I’m tired of it.”
But Supervisor Kevin Crye, who supported dumping Dominion and reached out to Lindell about the county’s plans, said he was concerned about state officials meddling in Shasta’s business. “Where do you draw the line of state overreach?” he said.
The standoff is being closely watched across the country, especially as a precursor to the 2024 elections.
A group of nonpartisan voters’ rights organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California and the League of Women Voters of California, sent a letter to California Secretary of State Shirley Weber expressing “grave concerns” about the upcoming election and calling for “urgent, decisive, and sustained response from your office.”
In response, Weber on Friday wrote county officials, warning them to “uphold your obligation to comply with the law.” She added: “Failing that, my office stands ready to take any actions necessary to ensure that Shasta County conducts all elections in accordance with state law.”
Weber did not specify what those actions might be, and her office did not respond to requests for comment.
David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who heads the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, said national voting rights experts are watching Shasta closely. One reason, he said, is because the fracas in Shasta — and the vitriol directed at Darling Allen — is an extreme version of a trend he is seeing all over the country.
This atmosphere around voting — including threats to elections officials, their spouses and children — “is not an environment I thought I would ever see in modern American democracy,” he said.
On Tuesday, at their last meeting before the election, county supervisors once again took up the issue.
Jones summoned Darling Allen to accuse her of misleading the board about the capabilities of the new voting system, made by Hart InterCivic, that the county had purchased to replace Dominion.
In a prepared statement, Darling Allen told board members that she had been planning to carry out a hand count following the board vote but now intended to follow state law, which dictated a machine tabulation. She also said that “contrary to claims made by certain members of the board,” she and her staff had previously “fully disclosed” that the newly purchased system had the ability to count votes.
“I am deeply disappointed by the chaos and division created by the actions of this board,” she added. “At no point in my career as a public servant and elected official can I recall being treated as poorly and unprofessionally as I have been over the last year. It must stop.”
But stop it did not.
Instead, Jones questioned whether Darling Allen had lied to him.
At one point, she lost her temper. “No, I am not gonna be quiet,” she said. “I am an independently elected official in this county.”
Then she added: “Mr. Jones, I would suggest that if you do not like the laws in the state, then you should work on changing the laws in the state.”
When it was time for public comment, some disparaged Darling Allen and insisted she was intent on messing with local elections. Others expressed outrage that the board is spending its time on voting conspiracies.
“I want you to focus on healthcare,” said one resident, Joshua Brown. “This is a non-issue that should not be on the agenda at all.”