UNITED STATES NEWS

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

Feb 29, 2024, 7:04 AM | Updated: Mar 6, 2024, 5:34 pm

REDDING, Calif. (AP) — Voters in Northern California’s rural Shasta County have twice voted for Donald Trump by wide margins while electing staunch conservatives to the local county board. They’ve even booted out some who weren’t deemed 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 the strongly Republican area.

A 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. Those machines were made by Dominion Voting Systems, the company at the center of debunked conspiracy theories about how Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.

The conservative majority on the board of supervisors directed the county’s small election staff to count ballots by hand. Experts say that’s an unrealistic task, given the tens of thousands of ballots returned in countywide elections that include dozens of races.

A mountain of criticism followed. In 2023, the Democratic-dominated Legislature passed a law that strictly limited ballot hand counts, short-circuiting 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 board of supervisors that voted to get rid of the voting machines.

The recall election has become a referendum not just for Crye, who won his seat by 90 votes in 2022, but also for the push for hand-counting ballots, which has been gaining popularity across rural America in response to baseless claims of widespread fraud tied to ballot-counting machines.

Voters are divided voters.

Mark Oliver stood 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 results, prompting suspicion among his followers. Because elections are run mostly at the local level, 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 were counting 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.

The turmoil has made other residents question their once steady belief in how the county’s elections are run.

Ann Brassfield, a retired border agent, said she has helped out in the county elections office before and “can’t really say that I saw anything illegal going on.”

Now Brassfield, who said she supports Crye because he is a Christian and has always treated her fairly, said she doesn’t know what to believe.

“I feel like nobody knows right now, but God,” she said.

The 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. 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.

The effects have been playing out in other conservative regions.

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

In Shasta County, a local commission charged with investigating election issues recently recommended the county defy state law and require hand-count ballots at each precinct. A staff report cited a claim that the United States and Shasta County have been “the victims of a coordinated multi-state conspiracy to defraud the 2020 General Election using voting machines.”

As in other places, distrust of government surged in the county during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and most businesses closed and the state’s Democratic-dominated government mandated mask-wearing and vaccines in certain situations. A group calling itself a militia started raising the temperature in public meetings. During one meeting, a man told supervisors, “You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”

“When these guys got ahold of COVID and mandates and masks and closing schools and closing businesses, everything shifted. And it just flipped us upside down,” said Dana Silberstein, who grew up in Redding and is helping organize the recall.

Voters elected three far-right members to the five-member board of supervisors — Patrick Jones, Chris Kelstrom and Crye — and they formed a new majority. Recall organizers said they decided to target just Crye, who, like Kelstrom, has two years left in his term. Jones is up for re-election this year.

A Trump supporter, Crye is careful how he talks about the former president’s election denying claims. Asked if he believes the 2020 White House election was stolen, he said: “I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to say one way or the other.”

He said he prefers hand-counting ballots because “one person can affect a handful of votes. One person with a machine can affect thousands.”

He said his main concern about election-related fraud centers on the county’s voter registration rolls, which include ballots printed for people who have recently died. He said his opponents have unfairly portrayed him as an extremist.

“I feel like if I raise those concerns, they want to put a tinfoil hat on me and they want to say I’m an anarchist or an insurrectionist,” Crye said.

Election officials throughout the country routinely match voter registration systems against death certificates. In some cases, voters die after casting an early ballot. In rare cases of fraud, a voter will cast a ballot for someone deceased — perhaps if they want to honor the wishes of a loved one who recently died. The Shasta County district attorney’s office said it could find no cases of voter fraud filed in the county in the past 10 years.

Crye, a county native who owns several local businesses, has endeared himself to the community in part by freely giving out his cellphone 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.

“Kevin answers the phone. 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.”

Critics see Crye differently. They point to his decision last year to meet with Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and Trump ally who has traveled the country spreading voting machine conspiracy theories. The meeting incensed some voters, who took it as proof that Crye was a dyed-in-the-wool election denier.

“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 county school superintendent who is helping organize the recall effort.

Crye said he met with Lindell because he was researching ballot hand counts, and insists that Lindell did not persuade him to get rid of the Dominion voting machines.

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

He criticized the recall effort as a political power play by Democrats. The committee that organized it includes veteran Democratic political operatives: Silberstein was the spokesperson for former Gov. Gary Locke of Washington state, and Judy Salter was a former staffer for the late U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Silberstein and Salter live in Shasta County.

Organizers note that more than half the people who signed the recall petition were either registered Republicans or not registered with any political party, with about 23% of signatures coming from Republican voters.

“Shifting the balance of power on that board is vital to returning us to a stable, steady, rational, fiscally responsible governance,” Silberstein said.

Whatever happens Tuesday, Crye said he’ll still be able to take his wife’s hand as they go for a walk across Redding’s Sundial Bridge. It’s designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is famous for its spire that marks the time on sunny summer days with a shadow that creeps along the banks of the Sacramento River.

“I’ll be able to hold my head very high knowing that I served what I believed to the very last moment,” he said.

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This version corrects the description for Charlie Menoher. He is a former county school superintendent but did not serve on the board of supervisors.

__

This story was first published on February 29, 2024. It was updated on March 6, 2024, to make clear that explains that just one of three far-right members of a board of supervisors is up for reelection in November, not two.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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