The Shasta county elections office was prepared for a night unlike any other. On the evening of this November’s special election, sheriff’s deputies stood inside as workers processed ballots that would decide a school board race and the fate of a proposed fire department.
Security guards were stationed outside the building in Redding, the county seat, while across Shasta, observers from the California secretary of state’s office had come to ensure the election ran smoothly.
Before 2020, a special election in the small northern California county of 180,000 would never have attracted this level of attention – or concern. But this rural region has risen to national prominence for its far-right politics, particularly after local officials, driven by lies about election fraud, opted to throw out Dominion voting machines and order the creation of a hand-count system.
State lawmakers, a majority of whom are Democrats, thwarted those plans with the passage of a bill in October preventing counties from using manual tallies in most elections. But in the days leading up to the election, the chair of the Shasta board of supervisors insisted the county would use that system anyway.
The tensions around the election fueled fears of political unrest, and confusion about how 7 November would unfold. Cathy Darling Allen, the county’s registrar of voters who had said repeatedly that her office would follow the law, didn’t know what the day would bring. One of the only Democratic officials in the area, she was starkly opposed to a hand count and had been at odds with the board for months.
“Given the political rhetoric in our community over the last six months, I just didn’t know what to expect. We tried to prepare for as many contingencies as we could,” Allen said. “Ten years ago I never thought I’d have to strategize how to protect my staff.”
Allen has been subjected to harassment, she said, and routinely maligned by the board of supervisors as the far-right movement cemented its power in local politics. In recent years, politically moderate public officials have faced bullying, intimidation and threats.
Her department had been readying itself for the election all year, since the ultra-conservative majority upended the county voting system without a replacement and instructed Allen to create an entirely new hand-count method.
Hand counts are favored by election deniers as a “fix” to enhance “election integrity” based on the lie that the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump. But research has shown that hand-counting is time-consuming and less accurate than machine tabulation in the US. (Some other countries also count ballots by hand for elections with no major problems.)
Allen and her office are responsible for administering elections in the county and following federal, state and county regulations. The board of supervisors doesn’t have direct authority over Allen, but craft local laws – meaning she was required to find a way to comply with the board’s decision and implement the new system.
Allen repeatedly warned that such a system is “exceptionally complex and error-prone” and would come at far greater cost to the county while endangering the office’s ability to report results in a timely manner. Most supervisors ignored those concerns, and the county won support from prominent figures in the election-denial movement who pledged to back their efforts.
“We are being used as a guinea pig by these people,” Mary Rickert, one of two county supervisors who voted against the hand count, said to the Guardian earlier this year.
The move put more pressure on Allen’s office, which had already faced what she described as aggression and harassment in the aftermath of the 2020 election from residents who believe widespread fraud is taking place in US elections. In 2022, rowdy observers in Shasta interfered with election processing, arguing that they were trying to prevent fraud on the part of Allen and her staff, she said in a statement to the US Senate judiciary committee. Someone placed a camera in a tree to surveil the alley behind the office.
When the board moved ahead with the new voting system this year, Allen and her team were obligated to figure out how to institute a manual tally in time for the special election in November. Staff worked thousands of hours over several months to create processes and procedures that comply with the regulations and held mock elections.
All the while, AB969, which in effect bans manual tallies in most cases and specifically targeted Shasta county, was working its way through California’s statehouse.
In early October, Newsom signed the bill into law. Still, the following day, the elections office in Shasta county continued with plans for an open house to show voters the work they had put into the manual tally system. Staff highlighted the time and attention required to tabulate ballots in that manner in an effort to educate voters.
It took a team of four roughly 90 minutes to count 25 ballots. (In 2020, 94,084 ballots were cast in the county, which has 112,000 registered voters.) Still, staff walked residents through procedures, while fielding repeated questions from election skeptics about what they described as discrepancies in past county elections.
Allen confirmed after the bill’s passage that Shasta county would not use a full manual tally and that votes would be tabulated by machine as required by law.
Far-right supervisors were undeterred. Patrick Jones, the board chair, insisted that the law did not apply to Shasta. When the state made clear that it did, he argued it was government overreach and said the county would sue.
Non-partisan voting-rights organizations expressed “grave concerns” and requested in-person monitoring of elections from the secretary of state’s office as well as support for Allen if she encountered interference. Shirley Weber, California’s top voting official, warned Shasta to comply with the law.
“Failing that, my office stands ready to take any actions necessary to ensure that Shasta county conducts all elections in accordance with state law,” she said.
On election day, Jones repeated falsehoods about “cheating” in elections in an interview with One America News Network, arguing that there was outside interference in his own election despite the fact that he was voted into office.
“Elections have been manipulated at the county level for decades and it must stop and this may be the case to do it,” he said.
Meanwhile, fears mounted. “What do you think the chances are that there will be violence on the streets of Redding this election season?” a resident asked in a local community group.
In the days before the election, the Shasta county elections office put a 7ft-tall metal gate in place to secure voting system equipment. It had already had additional cameras installed. The elections office saw tense interactions as residents concerned about so-called “election integrity” visited the facility on Monday and Tuesday, acting as observers.
On Monday evening, one such resident contacted law enforcement to report Allen.
“Instead of going home to my family to prepare for the election the next day, I was talking to a Redding police officer,” she said. “This is what we’re spending our tax dollars doing.’”
Another resident confronted Allen on election night with a list of complaints and questions.
Despite the unease, the election went well, Allen said. Voters cast their ballots without issue. Elections staff were able to carry on with ballot processing unimpeded.
Many residents in the county have expressed their support to the office, sending cards that line Allen’s office.
But she worries about her ability to retain staff – a problem offices are seeing across the country amid growing threats. One in five election workers have said they are unlikely to remain in their positions through the 2024 election, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Last week letters containing fentanyl were sent to election offices in Georgia, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington state.
Workers were not compensated at the level they should be to withstand the negativity they are subjected to, she said.
“This is a pattern we’re seeing election to election,” she said.
Some people have come to believe dangerous and untrue information about elections, and won’t believe anything election workers tell them, she added.
“Facts and data don’t seem to have any material effect on their very strongly held beliefs that if they just ask the right question or find the right staff person to harass enough, they will ‘uncover the fraud’,” she said.