Bill limiting ballot hand counting in California becomes law; one county pledges to defy statute

Shasta County’s Board of Supervisors president says law doesn't apply.

October 4, 2023, 11:06 PM
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023
Mario Tama/Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation into law on Wednesday that will limit the ability of local governments to manually count ballots less than a year after one northern county’s governing board ditched its contract with Dominion Voting Systems and decided to tabulate results by hand.

Set to go into effect immediately, the law deals a blow to Shasta County’s conservative-majority Board of Supervisors, which voted 3-2 in January to cancel its contract with Dominion amid a flurry of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the company in the wake of the 2020 election, leaving it without a way to conduct elections for a time.

In response, state legislators introduced and overwhelmingly passed AB 969 in September, which allows hand-counting under narrow circumstances: during regularly scheduled elections in places with under 1,000 registered voters and special elections with fewer than 5,000 voters. It will also block counties from canceling contracts for voting systems in the future without a transition plan and a finalized agreement for a new state-approved system.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A spokesperson with the governor’s office said that Newsom was proud to sign the legislation, adding that it wasn’t about preventing hand counting when localities need it, such as during recounts or mandated post-election audits, but rather about ensuring timely, accurate and efficient results in the state’s elections.

“It's not just impractical to hand-count, but it harms the election process. It will cost more and slow down our election results significantly,” Erin Mellon, the governor’s communication director, said. “Unfounded conspiracy theories have undermined our elections. California is focused on ensuring free and fair elections.”

With roughly 112,000 registered voters, the county’s plan would have made Shasta one of the largest in the U.S. to hand count votes -- a particularly labor-intensive and time-consuming undertaking in California, which frequently has complex ballots that can feature dozens of contests at a time, each with several candidates, and numerous statewide and local ballot propositions.

“I am pleased the governor took the time to pull AB 969 out of the stack of other commitments and other things he has to examine and worry about. We have all along said that this is a common-sense protection for voters not only in Shasta County but statewide,” Shasta County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen said via phone in reaction to the news that the bill, which she wrote to Newsom in support of, had become law.

“Hand counting is a great tool for auditing. But, through this process of developing a hand-count system, we have only become more convinced that hand-counting at a large scale can be very expensive and very time-consuming, which brings into question whether or not we can meet deadlines that we need to meet in the certification process and the vote counting processes,” Allen said.

While Shasta County is now legally barred from conducting a hand count, the plan to do so has already racked up a price tag of over a million dollars since the termination of its contract with Dominion, Allen told ABC News in September.

According to Allen, who has long opposed the board’s plans to hand count, the county spent “a couple hundred thousand” dollars to cancel the remainder of its contract with the company.

But state and federal law requires jurisdictions to contract with an approved vendor, like Dominion, to provide accessible voting machines that allow all voters to cast a ballot privately and independently. Additionally, counties must use software and machines to create, scan, store and tabulate ballots – irrespective of whether a jurisdiction chooses to rely on hand-counting.

To comply with the law, Allen said the county had to spend another $950,000 in April to ink a deal with Hart InterCivic, which now provides Shasta County with software and machines.

“We have spent hundreds of staff hours working on this project,” Allen said in September. “We are quite literally inventing a new way of voting from the ground up.”

But the county now seems poised to do away with its plans to perform a hand count and will instead use its new machines to tabulate and report vote totals in the coming November election and March presidential primary, according to Allen.

Voters who cast ballots at home or by mail – as the vast majority do – will mark paper ballots as they have for years, which will be scanned and machine tabulated. Voting machines for those with disabilities or others who require one will also be available at each precinct.

But speaking with ABC News on Wednesday night, Shasta County Board of Supervisors President Patrick Jones said that the supervisors were still committed to implementing a hand count regardless of what the law says.

“We made this decision before the legislature acted,” Jones said, adding that the board believes passing the law under an urgency statute that allows it to go into effect immediately violated the state’s constitution.

“If they want to allow us to have local control, the way that we should, over our elections, that would be fine, and no lawsuits would be necessary,” Jones said. “But if they try to stop us from hand counting, then there will be litigation.”

Newsom’s office dismissed the prospect of a legal challenge, telling ABC News that the state was not concerned about the bill standing up in court.

Jones, though, mentioned that he plans to attempt to remove the county's recently purchased ballot scanners – which have the ability to tabulate votes – alleging that the board was told that the machines would only serialize and document ballot images.

"The board was misled, lied to. We purchased something that we clearly did not want to purchase on fraudulent information, and so, this particular topic will come back up on our agenda items for [Oct.] 17th, and I will make every effort to have those four machines removed," Jones said.

For her part, Allen, who has spent over 20 years administering elections in Shasta County, said she believes the attempt to hand count ballots as a way to restore voter confidence in elections is misguided.

“I don't believe that this is a way to engender trust or confidence in the system. And I say that because, especially in California, elections have become more and more complex over the past several decades because of our ability to count more complex ballots using technology,” she said in September.

“I think there's this sense that, 'Oh, just hand count it,’ just like, you know, 52 [card] pick up. Just throw a deck of cards on the ground, pick them up, there's 52, you're done,” Allen said, adding that during the 2022 midterms, the county tabulated just under 69,000 ballots.

“When hand counting, you have to think about how many marks are made on each ballot. So, instead of planning for 69,000 pieces of paper, I’d have to [plan] for 2.8 million ovals marked by a voter. Totally different scale. Massively different scale,” she added.

According to the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan group that researchers election systems, most jurisdictions that hand count ballots in the U.S. have fewer than 1,000 registered voters – though several counties across the country with tens of thousands of voters, like Shasta, have explored or moved to implement such systems in the last couple of years.

A conservative bastion in the blue state – Trump beat Biden by 33 points there in 2020 – Shasta County has long had a board dominated by establishment conservatives. But in recent years, its members have been outflanked by other candidates who represent a further right, more populist strain of the Republican party.

Now, after thousands of man-hours, raucous public debates, and millions of dollars spent, the county will conduct its upcoming elections largely the same way that it has for the last several cycles.

“We're back to where we started actually in 2016. So … having voters vote on paper and mark their ballots by hand is something we did in our county since actually since 2007,” Allen said. “But between 2007 and 2016, we counted all those ballots centrally here in our office. So now that's what we'll go back to, as opposed to the five years intervening when we had [Dominion] scanners in our polling places. We will no longer have those scanners. So we’re just back to the way we did it not too long ago.”

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