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A California county ditched its vote-counting machines. Now a supporter faces a recall election

By ADAM BEAM, Associated Press
Published: February 29, 2024, 8:48am

REDDING, Calif. (AP) — Voters in this rural California county have twice voted for Donald Trump by wide margins while electing staunch conservatives to their local governing board, even going so far as to boot some from office who were deemed not conservative enough.

But that string of victories at the ballot box has not been enough to instill confidence in the county’s election system — not when Trump and his allies have repeatedly spread false claims about rigged elections and voter fraud, even in deep red Shasta County.

The Northern California county, known mostly for Lassen Volcanic National Park and views of the snow-capped peak of Mount Shasta, abruptly got rid of its ballot-counting machines last year. They were made by Dominion Voting Systems, the company at the center of debunked conspiracy theories about how Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

Instead, the conservative majority on the board of supervisors directed the county’s small election staff to count ballots by hand, a task experts say is unrealistic given the tens of thousands of ballots returned in countywide elections across dozens of races.

A mountain of criticism followed, capped by the Democratic-dominated state Legislature stepping in last year to pass a law that strictly limited ballot hand counts, a move that short-circuited any attempt to do that in Shasta’s municipal elections last fall. On Tuesday, voters get to have their say on the county’s direction since a slate of far-right conservatives who question the validity of elections took control of local government two years ago.

They will decide whether to recall Kevin Crye, a member of the conservative majority on the Shasta County Board of Supervisors that voted to get rid of the tabulators.

The recall has become a referendum not just for Crye, but also for the push to hand-count ballots that has been gaining popularity across rural America in response to baseless claims of widespread fraud tied to ballot-counting machines.

The controversy has divided voters, compelling county residents such as Mark Oliver to stand on a busy street corner in the rain on a recent chilly afternoon holding a sign urging people to vote yes on the recall. A resident of the county for 30 years, he has never before gotten involved in local politics.

“I feel like if we’re not engaged, then you’re going to have these kind of extremists who are just going to run rampant around here,” he said.

The trouble started after Trump disputed the 2020 presidential election results, prompting suspicion among the president’s followers. That outrage wound up at the doorstep of the Shasta County Registrar of Voters, where dozens of skeptical election watchers would show up to question staff members as they counted ballots.

In June 2022, with many of the far-right candidates losing in local primary races, a group of people walked in the back door of the elections office and started yelling at the clerk, said Joanna Francescut, the assistant registrar of voters.

“I felt they were trying to intimidate us for doing our job,” Francescut said.

Tuesday’s recall election could offer a clue of rural America’s reaction to the false election claims Trump and his allies have peddled since he lost his reelection bid in 2020. That drumbeat has had a deep impact on conservative voters: Polls have consistently shown a solid majority of Republicans believe Biden was not legitimately elected. And the effects have been playing out in conservative regions across the country.

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In Gillespie County, Texas, where the entire election staff quit just months before the 2022 midterms, volunteers plan to hand-count ballots from the March 5 primary. In New Hampshire, at least a dozen communities will be debating hand counts during their annual town meetings in March. A group of far-right Republicans in North Dakota is gathering signatures for a November ballot measure that would, among other things, require hand-counting of ballots statewide.

As in other places, distrust of government surged in Shasta County during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and most businesses closed. A group calling itself a militia started raising the temperature in local public meetings. During one meeting in 2020, a man told county supervisors, “You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”

Amid the tensions, Shasta voters elected three far-right members to the five-member board of supervisors: Patrick Jones, Chris Kelstrom and Crye, who formed a new majority. Recall organizers said they are targeting Crye because the other two members of the majority are up for reelection in November, while Crye’s term has two years left.

An unapologetic Trump supporter, Crye is careful how he talks about the former president’s election-denying claims. He said he prefers hand-counting ballots because “one person can affect a handful of votes. One person with a machine can affect thousands.”

A native of Shasta County who owns several local businesses, Crye has endeared himself to the community in part by freely giving out his cell phone number. When Jason Miller posted a lengthy rant on Facebook complaining about crime near his restaurant in Redding, he said Crye contacted him and brought the issue up with the police.

“It’s like he’s accountable for what he’s doing,” Miller said. “If you take that away from us … that’s not going to go well in Shasta County.”

But critics see him differently. They point to Crye’s decision last year to meet with Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and Trump ally who has traveled the country spreading voting machine conspiracy theories.

“They’ve found that path that they’re following and it is Trump’s playbook, just disrupt the hell out of everything,” said Charlie Menoher, a retired school district superintendent who is helping organize the recall effort.

Crye said he met with Lindell because he was researching hand counts and insisted Lindell did not convince him to get rid of the ballot-counting machines.

“All I ever wanted in this whole process was transparency and truth,” he said.

The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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