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California lawmakers vote to limit when local election officials can count ballots by hand

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers on Friday voted to limit when local governments can count election ballots by hand, a move aimed at a rural Northern California county that canceled its contract with Dominion Voting Systems amid unfounded allegations of fraud pushed by former Republican President Donald Trump and his allies.

Shasta County's board of supervisors, which is controlled by a conservative majority, voted in January to get rid of the voting machines it used to tabulate hand-marked ballots for its roughly 111,000 registered voters. County supervisors said there was a loss of public confidence in the machines from Dominion Voting Systems, a company at the center of discredited conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

At the time, leaders did not have a plan for how the county would conduct future elections, including the March 2024 Republican presidential primary in delegate-rich California that could be key in deciding who wins the GOP nomination. The county had been preparing to count ballots by hand for its next election on Nov. 7, 2023, to fill seats on the school board and fire district, and decide the fate of two ballot measures.

On Friday, the California Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, essentially voted to stop Shasta County officials from using a hand count to tally votes. The bill, which was approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers, would only allow hand counts by local election officials under narrow circumstances. The exceptions are for regularly scheduled elections with fewer than 1,000 eligible registered voters and special elections where there are fewer than 5,000 eligible voters.

“Hand counts are complex, imprecise, expensive and resource intensive,” said Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, a Democrat from Santa Cruz who authored the bill and is a former local election official. “Research has consistently shown that humans are poor at completing rote, repetitive tasks.”

The bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The fight over voting machines has divided the Shasta County, a mostly rural area where the largest city is Redding with a population of 93,000 people.

Should Newsom sign the bill, County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen said the county has the equipment it needs to tabulate votes in upcoming elections. Despite the county getting rid of its Dominion voting machines, local leaders gave her permission to purchase equipment needed to comply with federal laws for voters with disabilities. The system that was purchased, made by Hart InterCivic, includes scanners capable of tabulating votes electronically.

Darling Allen said in an email she hopes Newsom signs it, calling it a “commonsense protection for all California voters.”

Shasta County Board of Supervisors chair Patrick Henry Jones said Friday the county would sue to block the bill should Newsom sign it. He said state officials “cannot guarantee that these machines haven't been manipulated.”

“The state is now attempting to block us from being able to have a free and fair election without any outside influence," he said.

Pellerin said the argument that voting systems are easily hacked “is a fallacy.”

“It is illegal for any part of a voting system to be connected to the internet at any time, and no part of the voting system is permitted to receive or transmit wireless communications or wireless data transfers," she said, adding that California's election standards are some of the most strict voting system standards in the country.

Trump and his allies have been pushing county officials across the country to embrace hand counts amid conspiracy theories surrounding voting equipment, particularly those manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems. But few counties have agreed to do so. Last month, Mohave County in northwestern Arizona rejected a plan to hand-count ballots because it would have cost $1.1 million.

Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News following the 2020 presidential election, alleging the news agency damaged its reputation by amplifying conspiracy theories that the company’s voting machines had rigged the election in favor of Democratic President Joe Biden. In April, Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems nearly $800 million to settle the lawsuit. The judge in the case found it was “CRYSTAL clear” that none of the accusations about Dominion’s machines was true.

While hand counts of ballots occur in some parts of the United States, this typically happens in small jurisdictions with small numbers of registered voters. Hand counts, however, are commonly used as part of post-election tests to check that machines are counting ballots correctly, but only a small portion of the ballots are counted manually.

Election experts argue it’s unrealistic to think officials in large jurisdictions, with tens or hundreds of thousands of voters, could count all their ballots by hand and report results quickly given that ballots often include dozens of races.

As one example, Cobb County, Georgia, performed a hand tally ordered by the state after the 2020 election. It took hundreds of people five days to count just the votes for president on roughly 397,000 ballots, according to local election officials. To count every race on each ballot using the same procedures, one official estimated it would have taken 100 days.

“Doing something like a full hand count in a sizeable jurisdiction is not the way to put those conspiracy theories to rest," said Gowri Ramachandran, deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s Law School. "It’s a way to waste a lot of money and potentially create chaos.”

Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News following the 2020 presidential election, alleging the news agency damaged its reputation by amplifying conspiracy theories that the company's voting machines had rigged the election in favor of Democratic President Joe Biden. In April, Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems nearly $800 million to settle the lawsuit.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.