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A red California county has no way to conduct elections after dropping voting system

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A county in Northern California has dropped a voting system that has faced a barrage of election fraud conspiracy theories. The system is from Dominion, which says the move is, quote, "yet another example" of how lies have damaged the company. As Roman Battaglia from Jefferson Public Radio reports, the controversial decision has now left the county without a way to conduct elections.

ROMAN BATTAGLIA, BYLINE: Shasta County is small and rural, occupying the northernmost end of the Sacramento Valley. This deeply red corner of a blue state has been embroiled in unproven claims of fraud since the 2020 election. The county's board of supervisors has shifted more conservative in recent years, and public fights between supervisors and election officials aren't uncommon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY RICKERT: The tone and the tenor of this conversation is further destroying the trust.

PATRICK JONES: No.

RICKERT: Yes, it is.

JONES: No, it's not.

RICKERT: You're contributing to that problem.

BATTAGLIA: In late January, county supervisors terminated their contract with Dominion. Leading that charge was board chair Patrick Jones. Jones has been highly critical of any kind of electronic voting machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: And for people to say that we have free and fair elections without knowing really all the things that have been going on and the things that we know, it's just not true.

BATTAGLIA: Jones has focused his anger on Dominion, echoing attacks the company has faced by right-wing conspiracy theorists since the 2020 election. Donald Trump's supporters repeatedly and falsely claimed that Dominion machines were used to switch votes from Trump to Joe Biden, and Dominion has launched defamation lawsuits, including a high-profile case against Fox News that's currently being argued in court. Back in Shasta County, the board voted 3-2 to get rid of Dominion. Instead, they're exploring a system that involves hand-counting ballots. Mary Rickert is one of the two supervisors who voted against the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICKERT: I'm just saying that it's a poor financial decision for us to terminate the contract with Dominion. I think we're potentially opening up ourselves for litigation for Shasta County. I am very risk averse. I think it's a total waste of money.

BATTAGLIA: The litigation she's talking about is a federal law requiring that disabled voters have a way to vote independently, which requires some form of mechanical or electronic voting machine. Board chair Patrick Jones believes that removing all machines from elections will increase trust in the results. But research has found hand-counting ballots is more expensive, more time consuming and less accurate than using a machine. One supervisor who voted with Jones, Kevin Crye, believes he's found the solution to possible accessibility lawsuits. He says he solicited outside funding from the prominent election fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN CRYE: And I'm not about to waste money on anything, especially this. So I have secured the money, and I will support upholding my decision because we will not use Shasta County money to go down this direction.

BATTAGLIA: Crye says that Lindell will put money in an escrow account to pay for any legal fees the county might face from lawsuits. That offer drew harsh criticism from the two supervisors not in support of the changes, including Tim Garman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM GARMAN: Again, I appreciate what you're trying to do.

CRYE: What am I trying to do, Supervisor Garman?

GARMAN: You're trying to save the county money by putting it up for sale.

BATTAGLIA: Lindell himself is the target of a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion. If the county wants to try counting ballots by hand, they first need approval from the secretary of state, which could take at least nine months. Until then, without choosing another vendor, Shasta County doesn't have a way to conduct elections at all. That's left thousands of county residents even more confused about the trustworthiness of its elections. For NPR News, I'm Roman Battaglia in Shasta County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Roman Battaglia
Roman earned a degree in Digital Communications from Oregon State University in 2019. He now works as a radio journalism intern at Jefferson Public Radio through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism at the University of Oregon.
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