California county that tried to hand-count ballots picks novice to replace retiring elections chief

The leaders of a conservative California county that tried to hand-count ballots in response to unfounded claims of fraud have hired a new registrar of voters with no experience running elections.

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Wednesday to give the job to Tom Toller, a former Shasta County prosecutor who told the board he supports hand-counting ballots, which experts have said is an unrealistic task given the tens of thousands of ballots returned in a countywide election that includes dozens of races.

Nestled in the often snow-capped shadow of Mount Shasta, the county made national news in 2023 when the conservative majority on the board of supervisors voted to abruptly get rid of their vote-counting machines and ordered elections officials to count ballots by hand.

The voting machines were made by Dominion Voting Systems, the Canadian-based company at the center of debunked conspiracy theories of why former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

The Democrats who control the state Legislature intervened, passing a law that forbids counties from hand-counting ballots except in narrow circumstances.

Controversy over the voting machines divided the community to the point that some residents tried to recall Supervisor Kevin Crye from office. Crye narrowly survived that recall attempt in a March election that many saw as a referendum on the wisdom of hand-counting ballots.

Toller, who also helped train attorneys and police officers across the state during a stint at the California District Attorneys Association, indicated he would support a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s ban on hand-counting ballots, should the county decide to file one.

“I think it’s a system that’s capable of being implemented and observed for transparency and fairness and accurate,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why it can’t go forward.”

The registrar of voters is an elected position. But the former registrar, 20-year veteran Cathy Darling Allen, retired with more than two years left of her term. The Board of Supervisors had to pick a replacement.

More than two dozen people applied for the position. The board interviewed candidates in public over two days this week, followed by a public discussion and vote.

The board chose Toller over Joanna Fransecut, a 16-year veteran of the office who had been Allen's top deputy. Toller acknowledged his lack of experience, at one point telling the board that what goes on inside the office is “somewhat of a black box to me.”

To prepare, he said he downloaded the California elections code to his phone and has been reading it every night for homework. He said he's a local with a secure pension who doesn't need the money and will bring independence to the office.

“I’m a firm believer that just because the Secretary of State of California tells us a statute or regulation must be interpreted in a certain way that that’s not the end of the story,” he said. “I can bring an independent mind to the decisions about the election statues and regulations.”

Crye — who said he would have preferred if voters, not the board, picked the next registrar of voters — said he believed Fransecut was the right person for the job, but said she was “not the right person yet.” He said she would benefit under two years of Toller's leadership.

Supervisor Mary Rickert criticized her fellow board members for voting to hire Toller, noting his lack of experience.

“Do you want to put someone in who has never run an election before?” she asked Crye at one point during the hearing. “If it fails, it's going to rest on your shoulders and it's going to be your fault. Are you going to be able to sleep at night?”

“Like a rock,” Crye responded.