Senate Passes AB 969 Tuesday, Even as Costs of Shasta County’s Manual Tally of Election Ballots Continue to Rise

By a vote of 30 – 6 late Tuesday, California’s State Senate passed Assembly Bill (AB) 969 prohibiting Shasta County and other similarly minded voting jurisdictions from cancelling voting system contracts and counting votes by hand except under very limited and stringent conditions.

“While this is one important step of many in the legislative process, I am glad to see this essential bill move forward to protect the voters of Shasta County,” stated Shasta County Election Clerk Cathy Darling Allen when contacted by A News Cafe.

Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen.

Passed as an “urgency” measure since election season is fast approaching for November local jurisdiction elections, as well as the start of candidate filing for the nationwide Presidential Primary in March, the bill goes back to the Assembly to receive concurrence with Senate amendments. Then it will make its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk by Sept. 8 for a final decision.

AB 969 previously passed the State Assembly on April 27 by a vote of 62 – 9. It was amended slightly while in the Senate.

Here in the North State, California District 1 Republican Sen. Brian Dahle’s vote was among the six cast against AB 969.

Last year, Dahle was the most prominent GOP challenger to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

District 1 State Sen. Brian Dahle voted against AB 969.

Although the concept of manually counting election ballots appears on the surface to be deceptively simple, delving deeper reveals a host of state and federal regulations, laws and — at least in California — an entire Election Code designed to guarantee the secrecy of every ballot cast and fairness in the election process for every candidate seeking votes.

As Shasta County Election Clerk Cathy Darling Allen knows all too well, this would cost Shasta County taxpayers a lot of money.

So far, Shasta County and Dominion Voting Systems agreed the county should pay a total of $171,618.05 to terminate the company’s lease contract prematurely. The fee includes a partial lease payment of $93,117.05 for the nearly six months the company’s equipment was in Shasta County and an advance payment of $78,501 for removal and return shipment of the leased equipment.

Meanwhile, the Elections Department spent $801,543 to purchase a complete voting system from Hart InterCivic and another $34,603 to finance the initial set up fee for Hart equipment, office furniture and supplies, as well as hire additional department employees to oversee the training, hiring and supervision of hundreds of temporary employees needed to conduct the hand-counting of ballots.

Overall, Darling Allen anticipates annual operating costs of her Elections Department will increase by $445,528, which includes $70,000 in annual maintenance and licensing fees paid to Hart InterCivic for each year the county uses the equipment.

Since some of the costs for elections are borne by the various incorporated cities, special districts or other voting jurisdictions within the county who have their own races included on the ballots, there will be an increased cost passed along to those respective jurisdictions.

What if hand-count elections happen in Shasta County?

Should AB969 not become law, and Shasta County proceeds with hand-counted elections, Darling Allen anticipated spending between $563,973 and $656,585 per Primary election to pay 18 Counting Supervisors, up to 576 Precinct Board Members and an additional $54,000 to rent a facility large enough to handle all those people and the ballots themselves in a secure location as long as the counting takes.

Based on current reimbursement rates ranging from $226,134 to $268,361 per election, the net cost to the county’s budget would be from $337,840 to $388,224 per election, Darling Allen calculates.

For a typical Presidential Election every four years, the next being in 2024, Darling Allen estimated that the increased hand-count cost per election to range from $1,406,875 to $1,688,717, depending upon whether election workers are paid on a stipend basis or a minimum wage plus overtime schedule.

Based on the number of elections typically held in a fiscal year, the total increase in overall costs to the county taxpayers for Fiscal Year 2024/2025 would range from $3,776,050 on the stipend pay scale to $4,150,503 on the Minimum Wage plus Overtime pay scale.

However, Darling Allen admits there are still some unknown costs she cannot calculate.

These include the possible purchase and renovation of a building large enough to house the manual counting crew as well as the increase in costs for maintenance and utilities for such a facility.

Also unknown would be the cost to recruit all of the extra vote tally employees, the amount of security needed for each election, the set-up and tear-down costs for each election and all of the cameras, tables and other vote tabulation supplies that might be needed.

“We may need to spend more for insurance for our extra help staff, including Worker’s Compensation and Liability,” she said. “We don’t know whether we will be charged for unemployment for temporary workers between elections, the number of special elections and some other unforeseen items.”

Shasta County’s Dominion-machine rejection, hand-count-embracing history

On Jan. 24, a 3-2 majority of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors — chair Patrick Jones (District 4), Chris Kelstrom (District 5), and Kevin Crye (District 1) voted in favor of directing staff to issue a 30-day notice of intent to terminate an eight year contract with Dominion Voting Systems Inc. of Denver, Colo.

The county’s voting equipment lease was not due to expire until Dec. 31, 2025, and a lease payment of $262,321 for the entire year of 2023 was due in February per the contract signed by both parties on Dec. 5, 2017.

Supervisors Mary Rickert (District 3) and Tim Garman (District 4) voted against Jones’ motion.

The board’s vote was taken without prior consultation with Darling Allen or anyone on her staff.

In fact, a first glimpse of the board’s intended action was only revealed when the board’s website posted an agenda item on the Thursday prior for its upcoming Tuesday meeting.

California’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, requires at least 72 hours advance notice for any regularly scheduled public meeting.

Darling Allen and several of her staff members did attend the board’s Jan. 24 meeting, however, and objected strongly by defending the reliability and accuracy of their Dominion vote tally system known as Democracy Suite 2.2.

“California has the most stringent regulatory requirements” concerning voting systems, Darling Allen noted, before continuing. “Unfortunately, Supervisor Jones, you never contacted me regarding this issue, even though it is my department.”

Had anyone bothered to ask the Election Department, they also would have learned about a previously scheduled special election set for March 7 in the City of Shasta Lake to fill a vacancy on that city’s council.

By the board’s Feb. 28 meeting, Darling Allen requested a new agenda item for the board of supervisors to consider selection of an alternate pre-certified voting system — in California there are only three — from either Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, or Elections Systems and Software Inc. (ES&S) of Omaha, Neb.

California and federal laws require any county the size of Shasta to adopt some form of pre-authorized voting system since voting systems not only tally the votes cast, the system is necessary to create ballots and audit any hand-counting process used to verify the machine tally accuracy.

The board, by the same 3-2 majority, chose instead to move to a system of hand counting all election ballots at the Feb. 28 meeting, although they agreed to revisit that action on March 28.

Issues Complicating a Manual Tally

A manual count of that size and complexity was almost unheard of, Darling Allen noted in her Executive Summary of a 28-page report “Analysis of Manual Tally Options for Shasta County” that she and her Elections Department staff prepared for the March 28 board meeting.

“The cost and time required for any manual tally process depends on the complexity and size of the ballot,” she noted.

“The jurisdictions we are aware of that perform a full manual tally without the use of a voting system are much smaller, operate under materially different legal constraints, and do not vote a complex ballot like the ones utilized by California voters,” Darling Allen’s report summary continued.

“As of the November 2022 General Election, Shasta County had 111,503 registered voters and our turnout ranges from 50,000 in a primary to a high of 94,084 votes cast in the November 2020 Presidential General Election,” Darling Allen wrote in the Executive Summary.

“In the November 2020 Presidential Election, there were 47 ballot types, 42 contests and 114 candidates. There were over 2.8 million ovals counted across the ballots,” she noted.

“Whether and how a manual tally can be completed also depends on the legal timelines for ballot processing, tally and audit,” she noted.

California, for example, requires certification of most elections within 30 days. In a presidential election or primary, all California counties must send an official Statement of Results to the California Secretary of State no later than 28 days after the election.

State law also requires, even in an era of 100 percent of eligible voters receiving mail-in ballots due to the COVID pandemic, that no votes can be counted until the polls close at 8 p.m.

“The vast majority of Shasta County voters have chosen to vote from home in every election since 2005. Yet, California elections Code Section 15101 prohibits an election official from processing vote by mail ballots any earlier than 5 p.m. on the day prior to Election Day,” she explained in the summary.

Processing of ballots does not include a tally. It is merely the optical scanning of sealed ballots to separate them into precincts and to verify each ballot envelope contains a unique and valid signature of a previously registered voter.

Once signatures are verified, the envelope is removed and the ballot inside is stored in groups of 25 ballots by precinct inside a sealed box until the actual tally of ballots can be conducted.

“In addition, a manual tally at the scale contemplated by the board is exceptionally complex and error prone. Several studies indicate that (a) manual tally is far less reliable than tabulation by optical scan, the technology used by (each of) California’s certified voting systems,” Darling Allen writes in the summary.

“As a result, several levels of checks must be built into the process to ensure errors are identified. When errors in the manual tally are found, (a) recount and reconciliation (process) must be performed. These processes are also extremely time consuming,” she noted.

State Reaction to Shasta County’s Hand Tally Proposal

In response to Shasta County’s board-driven action to move the county to a hand tally of all election results, Shirley N. Weber, Ph.D., Secretary of State for California, has submitted proposed regulations to the Office of Administrative Law related to the counting of ballots.

“Those regulations provide all voting jurisdictions in the state a clear and concise path for conducting a manual count of ballots,” Weber’s official website states.

In addition, Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin and State Senator Steven Glazer, both Democrats, co-authored AB 969. Before joining the State Assembly in 2022, Pellerin served as County Clerk and Registrar of Voters in Santa Cruz County from 1993 until 2020.

The bill prohibits a county board of supervisors or election officials in any voting jurisdiction to terminate an existing voting system contract without having a transition plan or a replacement contract in place.

AB 969 has undergone a few minor revisions since the State Senate started working with the bill in late June.

The bill prohibits an election official from performing a manual vote count in any contest in which there are more than 1,000 eligible registered voters eligible to participate as of 154 days prior to an established election date.

AB 969 also prohibits an election official from performing a manual vote county on a date other than an established election date if there are more than 5,000 registered voters eligible to participate as of 154 days in advance of the special election.

These rules are relaxed only when a natural disaster or other state of emergency such as an extreme weather condition or massive power outages due to storms or wildfires which would not allow an electrical vote tally system to operate.

However, any manual count undertaken must still follow regulations established by California’s Secretary of State which requires an election official or governing body administering the election to provide sufficient numbers of trained and vetted counters to hand tabulate votes.

California election officials are required to conduct a one percent manual tally to verify the machine count.

In those cases when a manual tally method is used, a machine count of all ballots must be used to verify the hand count.

In a report titled “History of Voting Systems in California” prepared by the Secretary of State in 1999, the report states no California county has conducted a full manual tally of ballots cast at a statewide election since 1984.

Five counties — Alpine, Mariposa, Modoc, Sierra and Trinity) have conducted a full manual tally of ballots at a statewide election since 1980, however, each of those manual tallies involved fewer than 6,000 total ballots.

If, as expected, Gov. Newsom signs AB 969 into law, Shasta County voters have state officials, not their local county board of supervisors, to thank for saving taxpayers a boatload of money.


If you appreciate journalist George Winship’s accurate, timely reporting, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!

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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