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Can Shasta County’s New Hand-Count System Comply With Secretary of State’s Ballot Hand-Count Rules?

Secretary of State Shirley Weber

In a move likely to impact Shasta County voters and election procedures directly, California’s Secretary of State Shirley Weber is seeking to clarify and adopt regulations governing manual tallies of election ballots.

Such regulations, Weber explains, will “provide clear and uniform guidance to California’s 58 counties” and their respective election officials “for consistent application and administration of state election law.”

California’s newly proposed hand-counting regulations will specifically affect Shasta County taxpayers and voters because in late January, a 3-2 majority of Shasta County Supervisors — District 4 Supervisor and Board Chair Patrick Jones, District 1 Supervisor Kevin Crye and District 5 Supervisor Chris Kelstrom — voted to discontinue the county’s voting system lease agreement with Dominion Voting Systems two years before the contract ended.

They did so based primarily on never proven election fraud claims and conspiracy tales spread by then-President Donald Trump and his supporters including Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, and MyPillow magnate Mike Lindell.

Instead, the three supervisors favored a hand-count tally, even though California Election Codes favor machine tally results using vote-counting equipment which has undergone thorough testing by state officials before those machines can be leased or purchased by each county.

Machine tallies are deemed faster, cheaper, more secure, and much more accurate than counting ballots by hand, state election officials repeatedly told Shasta County supervisors when asked.

Hence the revised regulations are designed to restore public confidence in election results even when ballots are counted by hand, Weber explains in her proposal.

A complete copy of the proposed changes is available online here.

The hand-counting regulations provide requirements and clarity for counting election ballots, Weber states.

In preparing these changes and additions to the California Code of Regulations, the California Secretary of State” is modifying the current Uniform Vote Counting Standards and Recount regulations and adding an entirely new chapter of codes dealing with manual tallying in general and the 1 percent manual tallying — for audit purposes — already required by Elections Code Section 315360, she said.

Additionally, “(t)he proposed regulations provide necessary processes and requirements to ensure security, chain of custody, accuracy, fairness and accessibility in the (voting) process,” Weber continues.

Wading Into the Specifics

Under the revised regulations, “an elections official may conduct a manual tally of the ballots voted in an election of either a full manual tally, a manual tally recount on a specified number of contests on the ballot, or a 1 percent manual tally for audit purposes.” Subdivision 20298(a) of General Provisions states.

Whenever a manual tally is done, however, “it is necessary to ensure there is adequate space to accommodate the staffing needed for the manual tally, as well as space for observers, all pertinent materials and security personnel, along with a chain of custody of the ballots” being counted or stored before and after counting, Subdivision 20298(b) states.

The chain of custody regarding ballots is necessary to maintain the security of the ballots and prevent ballots from being lost, changed, or modified through mis- or malfeasance of those who will be handling the ballots, and to maintain the secrecy of the persons who cast those ballots.

A detailed manual tally plan must be submitted to state election officials at least 120 days prior to the election date.

The state is required to respond to the plan 90 days before the election, which gives state officials 30 days for their review to ensure it covers all required information with sufficient detail to comply with state and federal election laws.

If the plan is rejected, in whole or in part, it must be corrected or an alternative backup system that includes machine tallies with a previously-approved vote tabulation system.

This requirement may be particularly difficult for Shasta County since a majority of the Board of Supervisors initially resisted any mechanical vote-counting systems.

However, the board majority later approved a contract with Hart voting systems enacted on May 16 to allow some electronic equipment to serve voters with disabilities in person, software to create ballots, and scanners to capture digital images of ballots and audit the hand count, according to Cathy Darling Allen, County Clerk and Elections Registrar of Voters.

Subdivision 20299(f)(1) further requires the elections official to include a detailed description of how the county will conduct a manual tally in order to meet specific reporting deadlines required by state and federal officials.

In the event the elections official cannot meet the deadlines, a backup plan must also be described in detail.

This is necessary to ensure that the elections official has properly prepared and planned how they will conduct their manual tally to meet reporting deadlines and what to do as a contingency if an issue arises,” Weber’s proposal states.

Subdivision 29288(f)(11) requires the elections official “to provide a detailed description of how the manual tally results will be verified and audited using a certified voting system tabulator.”

Currently, the Elections Code contemplates a 1 percent manual tally when votes are tabulated using a ballot counting machine. However, the Elections Code is silent on how to audit a manual tally.

Because manual tallies are historically inaccurate, running all ballots through a certified (mechanical) tabulator is necessary to validate the results,” Weber’s proposal states.

This is an essential step in the process of counting ballots and therefore, having a detailed description of how the elections officials will conduct the audit is necessary,” she continues.

Ballot Preparation Prior to Counting

Whether ballots are counted by machine or by hand, all ballots must be separated into voting precincts and further separated by political party affiliation by individual voters whenever a partisan race is involved, California Elections Codes state.

In California, there are six qualified political parties allowed on the ballot, along with a No Party Preference ballot style.

Elections officials will need to sort the ballots by party and precinct for election result reporting purposes and will need to keep track of the associated manual tally forms accompanying the assigned batch of ballots being counted.

Voter signatures on each ballot must be confidentially scanned and compared with voter registration cards to be valid for counting; however, this must be done in such a way that no ballot can be traced to any individual voter by anyone doing the counting.

All counters must wear surgical gloves and surrender all cell phones, cameras, or other electronics as well as pencils, pens, or other marking devices while they are conducting a count.

Each group of ballot counters will be issued a colored tally sheet marker with a unique color selected for each shift of counters.

No more than 25 ballots at a time will be tallied by a counting group.

Each assigned ballot stack requires a certificate of performance to be filled out once the tally is complete. Information on the certificate should include the signed names of each counting board member, their designated role while counting, and the date and time of signing.

Each tally sheet will also have a watermark provided only to the elections official. The watermark will change daily.

The elections official will also appoint and train a sufficient number of supervisors to circulate among the various counting boards to answer questions, monitor the efficiency of each board, check the board’s accuracy, track their progress, address disputes, and ensure all procedures are followed.

The 34-page document contains many more procedural items than we have space for in this report.

Public Comment Period

Any person interested may present statements or arguments in writing relevant to the Proposed Regulatory Action for Ballot Counting, Weber notes. Such comments must be received no later than July 5, 2023.

Written comments, including those sent by mail, facsimile, or email should be sent to Danielle Dawson, California Secretary of State, 1500 11th St., 6th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814. Her email is ddawson@sos.ca.gov

Alternatively, her backup is NaKesha Robinson at the same address. Her email is nrobinson@sos.ca.gov

Editor’s note: This story was revised for clarity and correction on May 25, 2023. 

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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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