Despite fears, election day in Shasta County comes off with little conflict

REDDING, CA-NOVEMBER 8, 2022: Shasta County resident Teresa Romero, 64, right, points out to her husband Charles, 68, how the number increased by one on a Dominion voting machine to indicate that his ballot was successfully scanned after being entered into the machine at the Shasta County Clerk & Elections office in Redding. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Shasta County resident Teresa Romero shows her husband, Charles, how the number increased by one on a Dominion voting machine to indicate that his ballot was successfully scanned in November 2022. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Shasta County's embattled registrar-recorder and her staff had been braced for the worst.

A few days before Tuesday's election, a 7-foot metal fence was installed inside their office to protect them as they and volunteers counted votes.

The registrar-recorder, Cathy Darling Allen, had vowed to follow state law and use voting machines, in opposition to people in this northern county who have been caught up in conspiracy theories about election fraud.

In the spring, a far-right majority on the county Board of Supervisors voted to toss Dominion voting machines and opted for a hand count instead. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials then stepped in to stop the plan, passing a law limiting counties from hand-counting ballots. In response, Patrick Jones, the board's chair, said he favored such a count anyway.

But in the end, the election — with just 127 ballots cast in person, plus more by mail in a school board race and a contest to create a fire protection district — came off with minimal conflict.

The back alley behind the elections office, where precinct volunteers drove through to drop off boxes with ballots, was closed to the public, with blockades and security guards on either end.

Redding resident Michael Sullivan, 83, right, leaves as another man arrives at the
Redding resident Michael Sullivan, 83, right, leaves as another man arrives at the Shasta County elections office to drop off his ballot in November 2022. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Two Shasta County sheriff's deputies kept watch as election workers counted the votes.

Darling Allen said she and her staff were "just trying to ignore the noise and do our jobs. That’s our obligation.”

But she added that it has been "a really terrible year, actually. It’s quite something to be accused of stuff that you didn’t do in a public way, over and over again, and called names and targeted for reasons that I can’t begin to understand.”

Read more: Shasta County ditched its Dominion voting machines. Now, residents are braced for turmoil on Nov. 7

In the end, however, civic sleepiness prevailed. Precincts were mostly quiet, with few votes cast. And despite threats to do otherwise, protesters mostly stayed away from the vote count at the registrar's office in the old Montgomery Ward building in downtown Redding.

To make sure the votes got counted, about two dozen people, mostly supporters of Darling Allen, showed up to provide their own form of security.

“I’m here to make sure Cathy Darling and her staff are safe," said Curtis Chipley, 66, of French Gulch. He said he has been drawn into local politics after watching people harass Darling Allen in previous elections. "Before that, I had never been to a board meeting. But I was like, no, this is not happening in my county, in my town.”

“We fully trust Cathy and her system, but what we don’t trust are the people that want to come screw with that and bully them,” said Nathan Pinkney, an activist who regularly shows up to supervisors meetings to criticize the hard-right majority. He said he was pleased at the calm he saw Tuesday. “It’s good to see. Sanity seems like it’s finally starting to outnumber the craziness in this county.”

Another observer, Susanne Baremore, said she came out because she fears "our elections workers are ... being abused by fringe members of our community. "

Baremore has made a practice of defending the process. On election night in June 2022, someone hung a trail camera — the kind hunters use to track wildlife — in the alley behind the county registrar’s office to monitor elections staff. Aggressive poll watchers crowded into the elections office, with some getting in Darling Allen’s face, yelling at her. Watching at home on a livestream, Baremore rushed back out to the registrar's office. “I was like — pants back on for democracy.”

At one point Tuesday night, Lori Bridgeford, a far-right activist, election denier and anti-vaxxer who frequents local government meetings, showed up to ask Darling Allen questions but soon began hurling accusations at her.

“How do you get away with this?” Bridgeford said, citing a list of grievances she had against Darling Allen — including “blowing our budget” on the new security fence, according to a video of the confrontation shot by Doni Chamberlain, editor of the local news site A News Cafe.

Darling Allen finally lost her temper. “If you want to vote, vote. If you don’t, get out of my office!” she said, pointing toward the door. “Just like other people who say, ‘I’m only asking questions!’ What you are doing is questioning competence, questioning experience and undermining authority. None of that is acceptable.”

“You’re not my boss,” Bridgeford retorted.

Darling Allen told her to submit her questions in writing, then showed her to a voting booth to cast her ballot.

At another point, a woman who grew up in Germany and was 6 years old when the Nazis were defeated brought Darling Allen a bouquet of flowers.

“She said, ‘This is how fascism starts. And you keep fighting.’ And here we are. And we will continue to fight," Darling Allen said, her voice breaking with emotion.

The closed alleyway behind the Shasta County elections office in Redding, with a security guard manning a
A security guard mans an alley behind the Shasta County elections office in Redding on Nov. 7, 2023. (Hailey Branson-Potts/Los Angeles Times)

The lights shut off at 10:25 p.m. Tuesday in the building’s main lobby. Security guards and law enforcement officers waited to escort Darling Allen and her staffers to their vehicles.

In the end, fewer than 20% of the 9,500 voters eligible to cast ballots even bothered to do so. A measure to create a fire protection district in the town of Shasta was approved. Casey Bowden appeared poised to win a school board seat north of Redding, defeating a right-wing candidate.

The election should be certified by Nov. 22.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.