Proponents of the lie that the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump are eying an often overlooked region of California as they continue to promote falsehoods around the 2020 election: Shasta county, population 182,000.
Shasta county, a conservative stronghold in the state’s far north, recently ended its contract with Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company that has been the subject of a conspiracy theory that it played a role in swinging the election for Biden. The move has left the semi-rural county without a voting system and no replacement ready to implement when its Dominion contract ends next week.
Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow and one of the leading promoters of falsehoods about election fraud and Dominion, has pledged to support the county’s efforts, even offering financial assistance. Lindell and other Trump allies have maligned the company for years and Dominion is suing the chief executive, as well as Fox News, for defamation.
“As I promised, if you have any pushback, including lawsuits against you or your county, I will provide all of the resources necessary, including financial and legal for this fight,” Kevin Crye, a Shasta supervisor, said while reading an email from Lindell at a meeting this week. Lindell confirmed his support for the county to the LA Times.
The northern California county may seem an unlikely target for Lindell, but it’s become a growing hotbed for fringe thinking and far right politics since the pandemic began. Anger over pandemic restrictions and the loss of Donald Trump brought tensions in Shasta to a boiling point, fueling a political upheaval. With outside funding from a Connecticut millionaire and support from the area’s militia groups, an ultra-rightwing majority gained control of local government and has overseen a “devastating” exodus of county employees.
Those contentious politics were on full display this week during a 13-hour public meeting, during which the board weighed a hand-counting paper-ballot system and speakers offered passionate praise and criticism of the county’s decision, with some calling the election process “competent and honest” and others a “facilitated fraud”.
The culture of misinformation led to harassment and threats against election officials in Shasta county, who have have reported hostility and bullying from residents who believe there is widespread voter fraud, some of whom have inundated elections offices with public records requests to try to prove their claims.
Proponents of the national election denial movement have visited the area, speaking to the board of supervisors, which has a hard-right majority, and holding events at local churches. Local supporters of the movement have spoken regularly at county board meetings, gathered in large numbers for election observation, and visited the homes of some voters while wearing gear labeled “official voter taskforce”.
Shasta county has had a longtime relationship with Dominion that goes back decades, Cathy Darling Allen, the Shasta county clerk and registrar of voters, told the Guardian last fall. “It’s people that we have long standing relationships with, that we know and trust.”
Dominion, one of three companies whose voting equipment is permitted to be used in California, is used by 40 of the state’s 58 counties. But as falsehoods about the company spread, some Shasta residents were increasingly critical of the county’s connection to the company and management of elections. They urged the board to do away with Dominion and to make Shasta and example for other areas of the US.
“I believe California is going to benefit from the efforts of Shasta county because we have conscience here,” a resident said last fall as she urged the county to do away with its voting system. “This is our Tiananmen Square. We’re going to stand in front of the tanks and say no more to the machines.”
The board opted to cut ties with Dominion earlier this year in a 3-2 vote, a move that was taken “with little regard to the financial burden it places on our community, no plan of action to install new voting technology and no input from the county clerk/registrar of voters”, Allen said in a letter to voters.
Seven nonpartisan voter advocacy groups wrote a letter to the board urging them to reconsider their “hasty” decision, warning the county that changing its system so close to an election, without another plan ready to implement, could create difficulties for voters.
“[It] could result in numerous otherwise avoidable errors and administrative problems that could, in turn, erode public trust in the county’s voting processes, undermining the stated intent behind the Board’s initial decision,” the letter said.
The groups also expressed concern that “the right of people with disabilities to vote privately and independently will be compromised by this process”.
They hoped to see the board rescind its decision, said Kim Alexander, the president of the non-partisan California Voter Foundation, one of the groups behind the letter, which did not happen. But Alexander hopes the supervisors will broaden their understanding of how technology is used “responsibly and securely in the voting process”.
“There certainly are extra steps the county could take to provide more verification and transparency if they choose to. I think it wold be unfortunate if they decide the right decision is to hand count all their ballots because I don’t think it will provide accurate counts.”
Meanwhile, Allen’s office will have an even greater workload as it implements a new voting system. The office, like others across California, has been challenged by back-to-back elections for the last few years, including 2021’s recall election of the governor and a local recall election months later.
Misconceptions about voting and election security have grown in recent years, Alexander said, and officials should try to shore up confidence in the process. Switching systems so close to next year’s presidential primary could have to opposite effect, she said.
“The next statewide election we have in California is the presidential primary and it is the most complicated of any kind of election in California, so to layer on whole new voting system is a big challenge,” Alexander said. “That can create confusion and result in errors that could exacerbate the problem the supervisors are trying to address – now you’re further undermining voter confidence.”