How A Rural California County Became A Petri Dish For the Big Lie

Buying into Mike Lindell's Dominion conspiracy theories can be expensive.
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A deep red enclave in rural Northern California has recently seen the balance of its local governing body shift to the far right. Now it’s about to embark on an experiment tried in few other jurisdictions across the country: counting all of its paper ballots by hand.

The county clerk warned TPM that the switch could be more problematic than the hard-right majority could have anticipated.

The Board of Supervisors in Shasta County, California, has served as a petri dish for the most noxious refuse of Trumpism over the past few years. From COVID-19 denialism to conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems, a handful of county board members have used their positions to breathe life into Trumpian conspiracy theories and grievances at the local level, pulling in MyPillow CEO and noted Trump brown-noser Mike Lindell along the way. 

It started on Aug. 11, 2020, when a local militia member Carlos Zapata hijacked a board meeting to go on a rant against COVID-19 restrictions, and threatened violence if they continued.

“Right now, we’re being peaceful, and you better be happy that we’re good citizens, that we’re peaceful citizens,” he said, “but it’s not going to be peaceful much longer, OK?”

His rant, which subsequently got attention from Alex Jones and Fox News, portended the near future: Less than a year later, a local anti-government militia led an effort to recall county supervisors who followed mitigation measures—and ultimately succeeded in ousting one of them.

Following the recall was an election later that year, which gave anti-government activists an in to try to exert more influence over the governing body. Three of their preferred candidates—Kevin Crye, Chris Kelstrom, and incumbent Patrick Jones—won their elections, cementing a far-right majority on the board. And among their top priorities was cutting ties with Dominion Voting Systems. None of the trio returned TPM’s requests for comment.

Shasta County reportedly paid Dominion hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to lease the machines since it began working with the company in 2017. But on Jan. 24, the board voted 3-2 to cancel its contract, following protests against the equipment from its hard-right contingent.

Jones, the board chairman who spearheaded the campaign against Dominion, has gestured towards conspiracy theories that the machines weren’t secure as his rationale. “For me, for this contract, Dominion has to prove to me that we have a free and fair election,” he said at the January meeting. “Dominion has to prove that to me if I’m going to support this contract.”

Last month, the board voted to move to a hand count for the next election.

“The fact remains that these proprietary systems, without us looking into them, there is no trust for me,” Jones said of the machines during the March meeting. “And most Americans, the majority of Americans, do not trust these machines.”

Shasta County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen told TPM that the supervisors in question haven’t made their actual issue with the voting machines any clearer in the weeks since the vote was finalized.

“What’s been expressed to us is extremely vague and the word that’s been used is ‘concerned,” she said. “There have been no specific allegations or proof or data or facts offered.”

Supervisor Kevin Crye has mentioned repeatedly that he’s been in touch with the MyPillow CEO, who’d apparently promised to help pay for any legal fees that may arise from the decision.

“It was just an idea to call Mike Lindell and give him my vocation,” Crye told a local news station in early March. “As an agent, in reaching out to businesses and corporations, I was able to get ahold of him and I just flat-out asked him, I said, ‘this is who I am; this is what I’m doing. Would you be interested in putting up money—and I would need it in an escrow account—to fight any kind of lawsuit, maybe, that would come against us from an entity that would either be our own government or an individual with, possibly, HAVA [Help America Vote Act]?”

Lindell has made a name for himself as a Big Lie evangelist since 2020, parroting debunked claims that Dominion rigged the election for President Joe Biden on any right-wing show he could get an audience with. Dominion is suing the entrepreneur for $1.3 billion over the years-long smear campaign

“I just about fell off my chair when the supervisor announced that he had been in contact with him,” Shasta County board supervisor Mary Rickert, who voted to keep the machines, told TPM. “I think it’s just ludicrous.”

Lindell could not be reached for comment.

After the move to a manual tally was approved last month, Allen, the county clerk, told TPM that she worried the supervisors didn’t understand the scope of what they were asking for. 

A report released by her office on March 28 attempted to explain to county supervisors that a hand-count wouldn’t do much to make the election more secure, as the hard-right trio have claimed. Instead, it could do the opposite.

“[I]n a county the size and complexity of Shasta, hand counting every ballot—particularly without verification by another method, normally a machine count—is not a best practice,” the report states. “Full manual tallies are expensive, complex, and prone to significant errors.”

For example, last November’s midterm elections consisted of 47 ballot types, 42 contests and 114 candidates in the county alone. Nearly 69,000 ballots were cast in Shasta County, and it took two teams of four peopleelection staffers over a week to count 5,535 of them—a mere 8 percent of the total ballots—for an audit, according to Allen.

“I don’t love that they didn’t come to us in my department and talk to me as a fellow elected official or ask any of my staff to do research or get some information,” Allen told TPM. “They have instead relied on outside sources.”

California law also forbids volunteers from counting votes, so the tally would have to be carried out by paid county employees, Allen added.

“To perform a full manual tally in a Presidential Election with 50 contests, the Elections Department would have to add at least 1,255 additional temporary staff members to perform a full manual tally, at a cost of $1,651,209.68,” the report said. “This represents 86,696 total staff hours.” And that’s without taking the kinds of post-election audits en vogue among election deniers into account.

Allen laments that the supervisors hadn’t consulted her before overhauling the long-established system “There’s obviously a very specific worldview with the folks that they have brought forward,” she told TPM, “and it’s disappointing that we’re being asked to make decisions without hearing all points of view around this issue.”

Getting rid of voting machines could also potentially violate the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which requires that counties provide accommodations for disabled voters.

On top of increasing manpower and compressing timelines, Allen’s office would also have to get creative about how to keep the process accessible to all, or risk violating federal law.

Last week, the board approved spending $950,000 to buy equipment needed for a manual tally. It’s not the $1.6 million predicted by Allen’s office, but more expenses will come, she told TPM. “More costs will be incurred that have not yet been finalized by my staff and other county staff,” Allen said in an email. 

Ultimately, the overhaul serves as another benchmark in the ongoing radicalization of what was once a typical local government. 

Rickert told TPM that her brother, a psychologist, once said that Americans have replaced their spiritual life with politics. “I think that’s a fairly good description,” she said, “because these people are religious fanatics about their politics.”

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