Sacramento, California – October 5, 2023
In a move that has ignited controversy and raised concerns over the integrity of the electoral process, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 969 into law on October 4, 2023. This legislation, authored by fellow Democrat Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin, effectively prohibits hand counts in almost all elections throughout the state. The bill’s swift implementation has triggered opposition from certain quarters, particularly in Shasta County.
Assembly Bill 969 stipulates that election officials are barred from manually counting votes in irregular elections with more than “1,000 registered voters” or regular elections with more than “5,000 voters.” However, there are exceptions in cases where officials obtain approval from the California secretary of state or during natural disasters and states of emergency.
Pellerin, the bill’s sponsor, emphasized its significance in a post on social media, stating that AB 969 “puts in important guardrails to ensure that California’s elections remain accessible, accurate, and auditable.” She also highlighted the requirement for the use of a federally qualified, state-certified voting system.
The bill received strong support from various groups, including the League of Women Voters of California, which expressed concerns that without such legislation, the preference for hand-counted votes could proliferate, potentially leading to costly and destabilizing actions in various California counties.
However, not everyone is on board with the new law. The Election Integrity Project California is among the organizations that have voiced opposition to AB 969. They argue that the bill “dictatorially removes from the table any election model other than one fully reliant on the very technology that so many people worldwide not only believe but know to be unreliable and manipulatable.”
A spokesperson for Governor Newsom, Erin Mellon, defended the ban on hand counting, asserting that it is not only impractical but also detrimental to the election process. Mellon stated, “It will cost more and slow down our election results significantly.” She added, “Unfounded conspiracy theories have undermined our elections. California is focused on ensuring free and fair elections.”
One county that has been at the center of this controversy is Shasta County. In an attempt to safeguard their elections from cyber threats, Shasta County had moved toward holding future elections entirely with paper ballots, with the results to be counted by hand. Despite AB 969’s passage, Patrick Jones, Chairman of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, has affirmed the county’s commitment to hand-counting votes in upcoming elections.
Jones has sought approval from Secretary of State Shirley Weber for this plan, but as of now, it remains unapproved. Jones has accused Weber of dragging her feet on the matter and has expressed readiness to push forward with hand counting regardless, potentially leading to litigation between the county and the state.
Election consultant Ronnie Schaefer predicts that AB 969 will likely face legal challenges. “We’re going to see a challenge soon, likely with some sort of add-on saying that they want the bill blocked as the suit goes through the legal system. If that does happen, we’ll likely see hand counts continue until at least the 2024 primary in March,” Schaefer stated.
As the controversy unfolds, Shasta County’s clerk, Darling Allen, has announced her intention to proceed with machine counting, introducing another layer of complexity to the ongoing debate.
Shasta County, known for its Republican-leaning electorate, stands in contrast to the broader political landscape of California, where Democrats hold both state chambers and the governor’s office. Assemblywoman Pellerin has criticized Shasta County’s board of supervisors as “rogue,” alleging their attempts to derail elections in California, a characterization that has sparked further divisions in this contentious issue.
Amid this contentious debate, the fate of hand counting in California elections hangs in the balance, with legal challenges and disputes likely to shape the path forward.