Shasta County politician backed by Mike Lindell may be in trouble

Shasta County is moving forward with an extremely expensive plan to hand count all ballots in future elections. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to authorize the hiring of seven new county employees who will help facilitate the switch from machine counting to hand counting, in what amounts to the latest chapter in the county’s election conspiracy journey.

The Tuesday meeting featured a little extra drama as District 1 Supervisor Kevin Crye — an ally of MyPillow CEO and 2020 presidential election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell — got served papers announcing a citizens’ attempt to recall him while he was seated on the dais.

To understand the latest fracas, let’s back up a few steps. The board, which consists of four hard-line conservatives and one moderate conservative, voted in January to terminate its contract with Dominion Voting Systems because of conspiracy theories regarding the company and the 2020 presidential election. In March, the county voted to hand count all ballots instead of choosing a different electronic system for vote counting. 

Lindell, who was recently ordered to pay $5 million to someone who debunked one of his election fraud conspiracy theories, is a central figure in all of this. He has argued that no electronic voting machine can be trusted, spoke with Crye earlier this year, and said he is “going to cover” Shasta County financially if it faces any litigation over its mass hand counting of ballots. County elections chief Cathy Darling Allen has repeatedly warned that the board’s decision to move to a hand count risks violating a variety of California election laws.

Both the January and March votes were 3-2, with Crye, board President Patrick Jones and District 5 Supervisor Chris Kelstrom comprising the majority. District 2 Supervisor Tim Garman, who is usually aligned with Crye, Jones and Kelstrom, has cast dissenting votes alongside District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert, the board’s lone moderate.

For Tuesday’s meeting, the board was asked to vote on hiring five new full-time employees in the elections office and two new employees in support services who will help the county implement the hand-counting plan. The board also heard a presentation from chief fiscal officer Erin Bertain, who presented the board with projected costs. Bertain estimated that the county would be on the hook for at least an additional $3 million in expenses through the 2024-2025 fiscal year  if not well more — with the county needing to hire more than 1,500 ballot counters for the 2024 presidential election.

Several residents who spoke during the meeting’s public comment section were horrified by the estimates.

“I almost wanted to cry,” a resident named Susan said of the presentation. “My stomach is turning just thinking about this.”

“It sounds like we’re running out of the building with our hair on fire, and I don’t have that much hair,” said a resident named Robert, who indeed did not have that much hair.

A man named Steve expressed fears that the funds would be pulled from law enforcement budgets, resulting in conservatives defunding the police in order to, in his words, “satisfy something you got off of a conspiratorial website.”

Rickert, the moderate supervisor, was also gobsmacked by what she called a “reckless and irresponsible decision” to abandon voting machines.

“This makes me angry,” she said. “I’m really angry because this decision was based on a feeling that people don’t trust a machine, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.”

As Rickert did in the March meeting, she once again introduced a resolution for the county to reenter its Dominion contract. But Garman, who has been Rickert’s only board ally on this issue, did not give her the necessary second vote she needed to force another full board vote, saying he sees “no point” after the pair’s attempt to get the board to reverse course during the March meeting failed.

The main character of the meeting, however, was the Lindell-allied Crye. Early in the meeting, he was presented with papers from a citizen group registering their intent to gather signatures for his recall. Shasta County’s lurch to the far-right began with the February 2022 recall of longtime moderate Republican Supervisor Leonard Moty, who was replaced by Garman. Crye is possibly vulnerable to a recall himself, as he defeated his more moderate opponent, Erin Resner, by just 50.4% to 49.6% in the 2022 general election.

Since then, he has only grown more controversial, thanks to his ties to Lindell and his role in promoting the hand-counting process. The group working to recall Crye writes on its website that the supervisor has “brought nationwide ridicule and embarrassment to our county through his actions and voting” in his four months in office.

Possibly rattled by the recall attempt becoming very real during the meeting, Crye introduced a motion to delay a vote on the new support staff, who would be charged with hiring the hundreds of ballot counters required for a hand count. Crye proposed holding the vote during next week’s meeting so he could have more time to process Bertain’s presentation, which predicted astronomical costs. He was immediately met with hostility from Garman, who said Crye is obligated to immediately give the elections office the workers it says it needs for hand counting.

“You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it,” Garman told Crye.

Acting County Executive Officer Mary Williams also said it is in the county’s best interest to approve the new hires now, because the county needs to start building the infrastructure for the hand-counting plan. The elections office has expressed fears that unless substantial progress is made, it will not be able to conduct its special elections later this year.

If there is a swing vote on the board when it comes to elections, it’s Kelstrom, who introduced a motion of his own Tuesday that would immediately authorize the elections department to make new hires and schedule a further discussion of costs for next week’s meeting. That motion was a countermotion to Crye’s proposal to delay the vote on support staff, leaving Jones, the board president, confused and asking county staff for guidance on how to proceed.

County staff also seemed unsure of what Kelstrom was proposing exactly and asked him whether he was proposing approval for only the five new employees for the elections department, or also for the additional two new hires in support services. “Let’s make it all seven,” Kelstrom said.

Once staff determined that Kelstrom’s motion superseded Crye’s, it went for a roll-call vote. It passed 4-1, with only Crye in dissent, meaning the county can now go forward on hiring seven new full-time staffers.

While it would be inaccurate to classify the Tuesday meeting as a “turning point,” as the plan to hand count ballots is still on, one could reasonably classify it as a “vibe shift.” Not only was Crye served recall papers, but the residents who spoke to oppose the hand-counting plan were much more aggressive in their remarks than those who were in support.

“It’s a stupid thing going to hand counting and ignoring all the information that is out there,” said Steve, the resident who also warned of defunding law enforcement. “I can only say it’s stupid. I can’t say it’s ignorance; you have all the information but you just throw it aside. It’s stupidity.”

“We were afraid of you in the beginning, but you have been so persistent with this crap for so long we have gone from fear to anger,” said a resident named Nathan, who concluded his remarks by saying, “You’re not going to win every election. Get over it.”

Of course, there were residents there who supported the board majority’s skepticism of voting machines. A resident named Rich delivered a rant calling for a “full audit of every election” that was so intense other attendees apparently started filming him, prompting him to exclaim, “Take my picture, guys!” A woman named Lori said she “would like to stop hearing insults about the pillow guy,” in reference to Lindell.

The group working to recall Crye did not return an SFGATE request for comment in time for publication. Its website says it will schedule fundraising and signature-gathering events shortly.

“We come from a diversity of backgrounds, opinions, political affiliations, cultures, and interests,” the website’s mission statement reads. “The common purpose that unites us all is that our elected officials follow the law, behave ethically and with common sense, and act responsibly as the stewards of OUR taxpayer dollars.”

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