If Final Background Check Clears, Supervisors May Introduce CEO Tuesday. Voting Machine Contracts Revisited

Chriss Street

Pending the background check results, Shasta County Supervisors may announce Chriss Street is the county’s new Chief Executive Officer following an 8 a.m. closed session, and prior to the start of their 9 a.m. regular open session meeting.

Both meetings will be held in the board chambers of the county’s Administration Center at 1450 Court Street in Redding.

County administrative staff issued a press release March 14 acknowledging a majority of the board extended Street a preliminary job offer for the top administrative position pending a background check.

This was two weeks after Street was overheard on Feb. 25 boasting publicly to various companions that he was the board’s front-runner for the position even as three interview committees were meeting separately, each in closed session, to interview a total of seven finalists for the position.

Once the belated official announcement is delivered, the five supervisors will rehash yet again a controversial 3-2 decision to prematurely end the county’s 10-year lease of Dominion voting tally equipment following the successful completion of a March 7 special election to fill a vacant council seat for the City of Shasta Lake.

On Jan. 24, supervisors voted 3-2 to direct county administrative staff to notify Dominion Voting Systems Inc. of Denver, Colo., of the contract termination once the special election ran its course. In late February, they again reconsidered the original vote with similar results.

By state law and local practice, Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen is required to accept mailed ballots postmarked by election day through Saturday, March 25.

Since some mailed ballots come from service members deployed overseas, the waiting period takes into consideration any delays in mail service from even the most remote locations, the Election Department website explains.

This waiting period also allows Election Department staff to conduct a one percent manual tally of votes in a randomly selected precinct. If more than one contested race is included on a ballot, an additional manual tally of a different precinct could also take place.

Cathy Darling Allen

The manual tally is a public process and election officials provide notice of the time and location of the manual tally as well as notice of when the precincts will be selected,” Darling Allen explained.

Item R-6 on Tuesday’s agenda gives supervisors four options:

1.) Authorize the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters to negotiate and execute a purchase or 10-year lease agreement for electro-mechanical vote tally systems with either Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, or Elections Systems and Software, Inc., (ES&S) of Omaha, Neb.

Similar to Dominion, these are the only voting systems preauthorized for use in California elections, Darling Allen notes.

Whether leased or purchased outright, an agreement with either Hart or ES&S should not exceed a total of $3 million, Darling Allen stipulates.

2.) Authorize Darling Allen to negotiate and execute a companion agreement of $150,000 with Democracy Live to provide the Elections Department with a remotely accessible vote-by-mail system, software, licenses, and related services.

3.) Rescind the prior direction to county administrative staff to terminate the agreement with Dominion.

4.) Consider providing alternative direction to staff.

The fourth option might include subjects referenced in agenda item R-7, in which the County Clerk/Registrar of Voters suggests a policy resolution to establish a new Administrative Policy providing for a manual tally for one randomly selected eligible election contest and establish an Election Manual Tally Selection Commission to test the efficacy of a manual tally system.

Such a system, however, could not supplant any electro-mechanical vote tally system until the system can be tested, proven, and submitted to the California Secretary of State for certification and provisional approval, Darling Allen quotes from legal citations provided by the County Counsel.

State Election Code 362 defines the term “voting system” as a “mechanical, electromechanical or electronic system and its software, or any combination of these used for casting a ballot, tabulating votes, or both,” Darling Allen reminds supervisors in her background brief.

Shasta County’s next scheduled election is the Presidential primary on March 5, 2024, Darling Allen notes.

The process to prepare for and conduct a presidential primary election requires a voting system to be operational by early summer. On average, it takes approximately 9 months to install, train and test new equipment,” she explained.

As a result, in order to conduct the 2024 presidential primary election, Shasta County must have a contract executed that permits installation of the equipment no later than April, Darling Allen continued.

Of course, this timeline does not take into account any special election that might be called in the interim.

For example, if the four trustees of Gateway Unified School District Board are unable or unwilling by Tuesday to reach an agreement on appointing a replacement for Cherrill Clifford, who resigned on Feb. 6, then a Special Election is required to fill the vacancy, Darling Allen said.

Such an election would likely be held on Aug. 29 with candidate filing and ballot preparation for that election prepared for mailing military and overseas ballots no later than July 15, she noted.

ES&S, Hart, and Dominion are the only three certified voting systems currently available,” Darling Allen writes.

In accordance with California and federal election laws, Shasta County must use one of these three voting systems.

Leaving the voters of Shasta County without a certified voting system is not a lawful, legal, or responsible option,” Darling Allen concludes.

To bolster Darling Allen’s contentions, nine high-profile organizations — Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Disability Rights California, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the League of Women Voters of California, California Voter Foundation, Verified Voting, and California’s Common Cause — joined forces to send an 8-page letter to each member of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.

One purpose of this letter is to provide you with additional facts that we hope will clear up what appears to be confusion and gaps in understanding about the fundamentals of computerized voting systems and how they are used in election administration,” the letter’s seven signatories write.

Computerized voting systems are used to create ballots accurately and efficiently. Since each voter’s ballot must contain the voter’s precinct, political district, and, in some cases, political party affiliation. Different ballot styles are also needed to enable compliance with requirements to provide ballots in different languages or in formats accessible to voters with disabilities, all the while following rules stipulating the order of candidates’ names are required to rotate regularly, usually by precinct or address, to reduce the likelihood of fraud, the authors continue.

Another important function of computerized voting systems is to provide votes with options for marking their ballots,” the letter continues.

Touchscreen devices allow voters who have sight issues, including older voters who may not identify as disabled, to increase the text size for accurate marking and clearer reading.

Handheld controllers allow voters with severe visual impairments including blindness or those with manual dexterity impairments to navigate and mark their ballot electronically.

Voters who have difficulty seeing a ballot might also use an audio version of the ballot and follow audio instructions to navigate and mark their ballot while maintaining privacy and independence.

The third function of computerized voting systems is counting or tabulation of the ballots cast,” the writers conclude.

The accuracy of any computerized tabulation is checked by a hand count of a percentage of randomly selected ballots in a process that is open to public observation, they note.

In rebuttal of the expressed desire by at least three Shasta County supervisors to go to a manual count of ballots, the letter includes anecdotal data from several audits conducted in prior Shasta County elections.

A February 2022 audit of 9,017 ballots containing only two contests required 19 staff a total of 264 hours which averages out to 13.9 hours per staff member to count both contests. Those ballots represented approximately 8 percent of the county’s 111,500 registered voters,” the letter cites.

Similarly, a November 2022 audit of 5,535 ballot cards containing 50 contests took two teams of four people each a total of 8 days to tabulate. That number of ballots represented 8 percent of 69,000 ballots actually cast by Shasta County voters in the election, the authors write.

To be clear, we are not advocating that there be no hand counting of ballots. Hand counting plays an important role in post-election audits of computerized ballot tabulation. We simply are trying to correct misinformation that seems to be circulating in Shasta County’s deliberations about computerized voting systems . . . as well as to emphasize the infeasibility of accurately hand-counting all Shasta County ballots in a timely manner for any election (except) a small special election,” the letter states.

The letter is signed by Kim Alexander, president and founder of California Voter Foundation; Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California; Deanna Kitamura, senior staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Social Justice; Fred Nisen, managing attorney for Voting Rights Practice Group; Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting; Johnathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause; and Brittany Stonesifer, interim director for Democracy & Civic Engagement for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.

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George Winship

George Winship is a long-time Shasta County resident with a wide range of professional and community experience. After earning a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, he joined the Redding Record Searchlight as an award-winning reporter, and was the paper’s first business editor. He worked as a district field representative for Senator Maurice Johannessen, and later became editor of the Anderson Valley Post. Winship is a former Shasta County Grand Jury member. He owns and operates The Village Wordsmith, where he edits and rewrites clients’ book manuscripts, and works as a researcher and freelance feature writer. He can be reached at gwinship@shasta.com.

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