Breaking: Voting Rights Advocates Ask California’s Secretary of State To Monitor Shasta County’s Upcoming Elections
Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen stands next to California’s Deputy Secretary of State, Susan Lapsley, as she speaks to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors on February 28, 2023.
Six nonprofit voting rights advocacy groups have formally requested California’s Secretary of State, Shirley Weber, to provide monitoring and support for Shasta County’s upcoming elections. Among other requests, they’re asking her to deploy in-person monitoring of the local elections process both during the November 2023 and March 2024 elections.
Intervention by Weber’s office, the advocates write, could have “tremendous benefits . . . not only for the citizens of Shasta County but for all of the people who are watching these events unfold.”
Logos for the six organizations who participated in contacting California’s Secretary of State.
The nonpartisan coalition includes the California Voter Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Verified Voting, Disability Rights California, and the California Voter Foundation. The same group of voting advocacy organizations worked together earlier this year both in February and in March to contact the Shasta County Board of Supervisors about concerns with changes to the county’s voting system after a contract with Dominion Voting Inc. for voting machines, was canceled.
Yesterday, October 24, the advocates sent a joint letter to Weber asking her to respond to what they refer to as “grave concerns” about Shasta County’s election system stability which, they said, “call for urgent, decisive, and sustained response.” As California’s Secretary of State, Weber is the state’s chief election officer. Her duties include ensuring “that elections are efficiently conducted and that state election laws are enforced.”
The coalition of voter rights advocates say Shasta County voters are being subject to a “torrent of misinformation and disinformation” which “can be seen at nearly every Board of Supervisors meeting (and) truly threatens the electorate’s ability to discern the truth about how their upcoming elections will be administered and their confidence that their votes will be counted accurately and in accordance with the law
Voting advocates are particularly concerned about Board Supervisor Patrick Jones’s public statements saying he does not plan to follow new state law, AB 969, which requires the county to use machine, not hand, counting to tally election ballots. They also expressed concern about ongoing misinformation about the election process that’s being shared in public meetings, including by officials themselves. In particular, the coalition of advocates expressed concern about Jones’ statement that the county’s new Hart voting machines are “unauthorized,” which, they emphasized, undermines confidence in the election process.
Voter rights advocates also pointed in their letter to Weber that the need to deal with these extraordinary pressures has diverted time and resources from Shasta County Elections Office staff as they work to deploy a new voting system for the first time. A situation, they wrote, that endangers “the smooth administration of the upcoming elections and thus the rights of voters, including voters with disabilities.”
Advocates have asked Weber to respond by monitoring elections in-person during the upcoming November 7 special election and again next spring for the March 5, 2024 election. They’d also like her to provide any assistance required by Shasta County’s Registrar of Voters, Cathy Darling Allen, to ensure she is able to fulfill her election duties without interference, including interference from the newly-formed county Citizen Elections Advisory Committee.
Advocates also say they hope the state will work to supplement and support voter education efforts in Shasta County, including providing more information to voters about the safety and security of the voting system, including the California certification process.
You can read the full letter sent to the Secretary of State embedded below, or by following this link.
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When people ask how Cathy Darling Allen is doing, she no longer responds with the socially-appropriate “fine” people expect to hear, because she’s not fine.
For more than two years, Allen, who runs the elections office in northern California’s Shasta County, has spent much of her time fending off accusations that her office falsifies election results.
“I’ve actually heard people say, ‘Well, you’re cheating to get where you want so that your people will win,’” Allen said in a Daily Yonder interview. “Oh, Lord, if I only had the time for that.”
In January 2023, the Shasta County board of supervisors decided in a 3-2 vote to cancel their electronic voting system contract after mounting pressure from election deniers. The county is the center of a small metropolitan area and has a mix of rural and urban communities. It comes in at more than 112,000 registered voters and now plans to use a hand-count system.
The decision adds to the growing number of counties – rural, suburban, and urban – where election deniers have successfully urged local governments to recount election results or throw out electronic voting machines altogether.
While the movement has targeted communities of every size, civics experts say rural communities have the most to lose from the pressures of the election denial movement.
“We’re at this period that I think should be being celebrated as a sort of high point of participation in American democracy,” said Justin Grimmer, a political science professor at Stanford University who studies election denialism, in a Daily Yonder interview. But the election denial movement threatens this progress, he said.
Voter turnout in the last three federal elections broke records. The 2020 presidential election saw the highest turnout in the 21st century with 66.8% of citizens age 18 or older casting a vote, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A series of reforms have also been passed to make election infrastructure – how votes are cast, counted, and reported – safer and more efficient.
Former President Donald Trump’s unfounded attacks on the U.S. election system and the resulting election-denial movement put these gains in jeopardy. Rural areas could be among the first to suffer from the attacks.
Rural America already has lower voter turnout rates, which some researchers argue is due to inadequate election infrastructure. One 2022 study found that voting-by-mail restrictions hurt rural voters the most because there are fewer rural polling locations than urban ones, increasing the distance a person must travel to cast a vote. Along with skepticism about electronic voting machines, election deniers have also questioned the use of mail-in ballots, even though voting by mail has been used in some form in the United States since the 1860s.
Reversing the progress that has been made to improve election infrastructure – the use of equipment that more accurately counts votes and ensuring better access to voting through absentee and mail-in ballots, for example – could set back civic participation, Grimmer said.
“If localities start acting in a reactionary way because of these election integrity groups and they decide that they’re gonna peel back some of these reforms…you could actually end up eliminating some of the transparency that has been implemented,” Grimmer said. “It may be harder to track your ballot, which could ironically make people more skeptical about the election than they were before.”
The current election denial movement began in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. Trump said in a speech to supporters in August of that year that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” He voiced similar comments on Twitter.
In the weeks following the election, organized efforts began in several states to overturn the election results, claiming the elections were stolen. (In mid-August 2023, Trump was indicted in Georgia on charges that he and others illegally tried to overturn the election in the state.)
Then came January 6, 2021, when more than 2,000 people broke into the Capitol in an effort to block certification of the Electoral College results. (In early August 2023, Trump was indicted on federal charges related to those events.)
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After Trump left office, the election denial movement shifted to a core group of “influencers,” including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, former business-law professor David Clements, former math and science teacher Douglas Frank, and former U.S. Army Captain Seth Keshel. Over the past two-and-a-half years, these influencers have made it a full-time job traveling the country to spread the election denial movement’s primary message: elections are being stolen, and it’s the government’s fault.
In some places, this messaging has worked. According to data compiled by the Daily Yonder as of August 24, 2023, seven U.S. counties have successfully held a hand-count or plan to in future elections.
Along with Shasta County, California; Spalding County, Georgia, and Cleburne County, Arkansas, recently approved hand-counts for future elections. Nye and Esmeralda counties, Nevada, both held hand-counts for their 2022 elections, as did Tripp County, South Dakota. Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, recounted by hand the results of the 2020 presidential election in January of 2023.
Four out of the seven counties that held a hand-count or completely eliminated their electronic voting systems are nonmetropolitan, or rural.
Some voting districts within counties in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin plan to hand-count ballots in 2024, according to the nonpartisan organization Verified Voting.
But many pushes to pass hand-count policies have failed. In June of 2023, Governor Katie Hobbs of Arizona – the only state to try mandating hand-counts statewide – vetoed a bill that would have allowed any county in the state to hand-count ballots. Similar efforts at county and municipal levels have also failed.
Although the movement’s success may be waning at the moment, some civics experts warn that election denial “is down…not out.”
Election deniers are now putting energy into grassroots organizing, a quieter version of the loud-and-proud campaigning led by Trump that occurred in the movement’s nascent days.
“They’re kind of spreading the [erroneous] word about how voting machines particularly are stealing elections, and they’re encouraging people to put in Freedom of Information Act-types of requests and at the extreme, encouraging let’s just say impolite behavior toward election officials,” said Charles H. Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a Daily Yonder interview. Stewart published research in early 2023 exploring the characteristics that lead people to the election denial movement.
“The thing that we’re seeing in 2020 that we didn’t see in 2016, or in 2012 or other times when these sorts of [election integrity] questions arose, is that we now have about a half-dozen of these traveling road shows,” Stewart said. Few of these “road shows” are held in major cities, according to Stewart.
An NPR analysis of grassroots election denial events between January 6, 2021, and June 30, 2022, showed that the gatherings occurred in nearly every state. The events hit major cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. But they tended to steer toward the suburbs, smaller metropolitan areas, and in some cases, rural counties.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the NPR database shows there were no events in the city of Pittsburgh, but four counties within the Pittsburgh metropolitan area did have events. Philadelphia had one event, and there were two in the city’s surrounding counties. Only one Pennsylvania event on the NPR list was in a nonmetropolitan, or rural, county.
These in-person events distinguish the election denial movement from other far-right conspiracies that have existed primarily online.
“The election integrity movement is distinct from something like QAnon, which was by and large an online phenomenon,” said Stanford University’s Grimmer. “Here, I think it’s reversed.”
While people are getting some of their information about election denialism online, Grimmer said, the real force of the movement comes from the in-person meetings. “Individuals are coming together, discussing the things that they think are surprising or suspicious in their local elections and then actually going out in their community and doing something,” Grimmer said.
This played out in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, a small metropolitan area with about 114,000 residents. In January 2023 a local election denial group successfully petitioned for a recount of the 2020 presidential election. Most of the group’s organizing has been conducted in-person at various community centers around Williamsport, Pennsylvania (population 28,000), the Lycoming County seat.
Poll workers recounted nearly 60,000 ballots by hand; the difference between the electronic and manually-counted ballots came in at just a handful of votes. Election officials attributed the difference to poorly-circled ovals on the ballot that the machine could not detect.
Lycoming County’s elections director says the election denial group represents a loud minority in the community. “I think it’s easy to walk up to somebody and get them to sign almost anything,” said elections director Forrest Lehman. “In doing this hand-count, probably 4,900 out of those 5,000 people [who signed the petition] are gonna say, OK, well fine. I guess the results were correct.”
But it’s the other 100 people who are driving the movement in rural areas like Lycoming County, Lehman told the Daily Yonder.
Even after the hand-count results showed no proof of fraud in the electronically-counted ballots, the local election denial group has doubled down on their accusations, inviting election denier Sam Faddis, a retired CIA officer, to speak at their meetings. Like the election deniers touring nationally (such as Mike Lindell and Seth Keshel), Faddis has toured Pennsylvania to speak with other election denial groups.
“They allege that our vote totals were off by thousands based on these questionable statistical analyses that are being peddled not only in this state, but in a lot of places by a couple big names that keep coming up,” Lehman said.
Nearly 2,000 miles to the west of Lycoming County, a county clerk is experiencing similar accusations fueled by the election denial movement’s main talking points.
In La Plata County, Colorado, an influx of open records requests have poured in since 2020 challenging the election tools the county uses, which include Dominion Voting Systems – an electronic voting hardware and software company – and mail-in ballots. The county has relied on mail-in ballots since 1992.
“What’s happened to us is people from the outside and different organizations that don’t have anything to do with our local communities are attacking us because ‘Oh my gosh, you have Dominion or you use mail ballots and we don’t trust you,’ ” said La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee in a Daily Yonder interview. “That’s been really hard on us.”
Most of the open records requests use the same language provided by state and national election denial groups, Lee said.
Lee has not experienced the violent threats other election officials have received (a Maricopa County, Arizona election official received death threats through voicemail in 2021, for example), but her office is on high alert, especially as they move into the 2024 presidential election year.
And they have good reason to be.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice established the Election Threats Task Force to investigate threats to election workers, which they identified as on the rise post-2020.
In the task force’s first year, more than 1,000 threats were reported, and approximately 11% of them met the requirements for federal criminal investigation, according to a press release. Of the potentially criminal threats, 58% of them were in states with post-election lawsuits, audits, and recounts.
In May 2023, the Department of Homeland Security released a national terrorism advisory bulletin that warns of a heightened domestic violence threat moving into the 2024 election year. The causes for this violence include individuals’ “perceptions of the 2024 general election cycle and legislative or judicial decisions pertaining to sociopolitical issues.” The advisory expires November 23, 2023.
The psychological toll these threats take on election workers is severe: In Colorado, 23 of the state’s 64 county clerks were new to the office last year, according to Lee. This high turnover poses another risk to the elections process.
“If we chase off election workers with this insanity, we’re going to make elections run more poorly,” said Grimmer from Stanford University. “We’ll be hemorrhaging so much experience and expertise for no reason other than the sort of falsehoods that are in people’s brains.”
As election officials gear up for local and state elections this November and a presidential election next year, county clerks are preparing to head off even more fraud accusations.
Rural county clerks hope their communities will trust them through the process.
“We’re just here to do our jobs,” Lee said. “Just like your county treasurer, your county assessor, your coroner, your surveyor; your county clerks are the same. We’re just administrators of the law.
“And I hope that rural communities across the United States understand that, that we’re just human beings doing good work for the people’s voices to be heard.”
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Four of Charlottesville School Board’s seven seats may turn over this fall, bringing in entirely new leadership for the district
There is about to be a major shift in the makeup of Charlottesville’s School Board.
Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election this fall, and three of the incumbent members have decided they will not run again. It’s unclear if the fourth incumbent member, Jennifer McKeever, will seek reelection. McKeever did not respond to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s request for comment, and as of Thursday she had not filed the necessary paperwork with the Voter Registration Office to run, said Joshua Jenkins, chief deputy registrar. She has until Tuesday to do so.
That means it’s possible the School Board will have four new faces this fall. While it’s not often that the board welcomes so many new members at one time, even with four open seats, it does happen. The last time the School Board had four new members was in 2005.
But there is regular turnover on the board, said Jenkins. And, members tend to hold their positions for years. McKeever and exiting board member Sherry Kraft served for more than eight years, exiting member James Bryant served for five years and LaShundra Bryson Morsberger for four years.
This is Superintendent Royal Gurley’s first election cycle. He said the four seats up for election is not something he is particularly worried about. He looks forward to having new voices to offer input.
“It’ll be four new people coming on with four new ideas,” said Superintendent Royal Gurley. “I’m sure anyone whose running is qualified.”
But who those people will be is still a mystery. So far, only two people — Chris Meyer and Amanda Burns — have completed the necessary paperwork to run. Five additional people have started the process to become candidates, but had not completed it as of Thursday, said Jenkins.
Whomever takes the new board seats will be making a lot of important decisions in the coming years.
“It is a policy-making role, not a management one,” said Kraft. “It’s hard work but it’s worth it.”
Kraft said the board has also worked to fix inequities within the schools’ gifted program and improve mental health services for students.
The future School Board will immediately face more issues. There remains a major school bus driver shortage that has kept thousands of students from getting a bus to school. The board must also finalize some “foundational decisions” for how it will run CATEC by next summer. Standardized testing also remains an issue, with Charlottesville schools testing below the state average in some subjects, particularly its students of color.
Both Kraft and Morsberger emphasized the need for new members to tackle equity issues within the school system. Students of color and economically disadvantaged students in Charlottesville are less likely to enroll in Advanced Placement courses or be in the school’s gifted program, according to the two members. It’s a problem the School Board has been discussing for years.
“We still have issues with achievement with students of color, there was more learning loss among disadvantaged students. We need to continue to work on that and bringing those kids farther along,” said Kraft.
Kraft said she hopes the new board members will be “younger.” Four of the board’s seven members are over 50, two are over 70. Kraft, the board’s oldest member, is 75.
The four-term member hopes having a younger makeup will challenge the rest of the board and the community, which could be beneficial, she said.
That said, new members should be prepared for the dedicated time commitment, but should not be afraid to only take on what they can, said Bryson Morsberger. And it can be difficult to balance, especially for people with full time employment or other responsibilities.
Bryson Morseberger, an human resources specialist with the National Park Service, limited her commitment by not joining school committees. Still, the two-three hours a week she spent on Board business became a lot to balance with working a separate full-time job and being a mother. During the earlier stages of the pandemic, board members were at meetings multiple times a week, said Bryson Morsberger,
On top of the monthly meetings, School Board members are assigned to committees each year. Some members can be in one to seven committees, and the time commitment for those groups can range.
Within the last year, the School Board pivoted to aiding in student discipline assessments for kids looking at out-of-school suspensions or expulsions in addition to their other obligations. The meetings would last an hour or so, but the process still left some members burnt out.
“There were times where we would do a discipline hearing and I would just go home and pass out,” said Bryson Morsberger. “It was taxing.”
She continued, “In the beginning of my term, I felt like I could balance it all, but after the pandemic, I’m feeling burnt out.”
So, she encourages new board members to only take on what they’re able to.
“Show up the way you can, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly,” said Bryson Morsberger.
Kraft’s only concern is new board members may lack institutional knowledge, which would make deciding on long term issues more difficult, she said.
“There could be some people who don’t know the history of how we got to this point,” said Kraft
Board members serve a two-year term, which means three or more seats are up for election every two years. Board Members Lisa Larson-Torres, Dom Morse and Emily Dooley will remain on the board during the election.
In order to run, prospective candidates must get 125 signatures from Charlottesville citizens.
The deadline for candidate applications is June 20. Those interested in petitioning can visit the State Board of Elections website for more information. The Charlottesville registrar can be contacted at 434-970-3250 or vote [at] charlottesville.org.