How election conspiracy theories tore apart this remote Northern California county

BY JESSICA HUSEMAN | CalMatters

This story is a collaboration with Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Sign up for Votebeat’s free national newsletter here.

To understand the forces tearing apart California’s Shasta County, consider what has happened to Cathy Darling Allen.

In five consecutive elections, voters in the rural county have selected her as their chief election official. That means that since 2004, she’s been responsible for voter registration, the administration of elections, and a host of related tasks. She’s consistently been the only Democrat in countywide office in the conservative county, where Donald Trump won more than 60% of the vote in 2020. In 2022, her most recent appearance on the ballot, she took in nearly 70% of the vote. By those indicators, she seems pretty popular.

But she has received a steady stream of threats from a loud minority of Shasta County residents who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. She has been repeatedly accused in public meetings and on social media of engaging in both satanism and witchcraft. The most committed MAGA activists have circulated petitions accusing her of sedition and treason. She’s been followed walking to her car. Someone — she still isn’t certain who — installed a trail camera behind her office, where votes are counted.

It’s taken a toll. Darling Allen, 55, had no history of heart problems. But in November, she was diagnosed with heart failure. Doctors say stress was a factor, and told her that in order to stay alive, she would have to reduce it. She went on medical leave in December and officially retired as the county’s registrar of voters in early May, two years before her latest term was scheduled to end.

Retiring early “feels like a get out of jail free card,” she said over a salt-free breakfast at a diner in downtown Redding in March. “But it isn’t. It has all these conditions.”

She monitors her heart rate and goes to “a lot” of doctors appointments. She doesn’t go to county meetings anymore, even though her name comes up at all of them. Her daughter monitors them online, letting her know if something crops up that requires her attention. Often, it does: Shasta County has become a national symbol, roiled by a series of well-publicized clashes over election administration.

Tucked in the heavily forested northeastern reaches of California, Shasta County was named for Mount Shasta, a volcano known to erupt in bursts of activity followed by thousands of years of dormancy. The volcano has been quiet for generations. In contrast, the pressures felt in Shasta County — economic turbulence, the fallout from devastating wildfires and the COVID pandemic, the visible presence of militias, the swelling growth of a local megachurch, a housing crisis, and massive cultural shifts — disrupt daily life for many.

Elections aren’t the only fault line, but they’re the most visible, and the cracks are widening.

In mid-March, a volunteer offered the invocation at a county meeting and prayed for “peace and calmness.” Moments later, she called one of the commissioners “the spawn of satan running interference for a hostile” voter registrar. Members of the audience screamed at each other. One woman told the other side of the room to “shove it.” A man blew a raspberry back.

“We are in the third grade,” whispered Joanna Francescut, Darling Allen’s deputy, who began to lead the department in her absence.

While the anger expressed toward them at the meetings is unsettling, neither Francescut nor Darling Allen believes they are the cause of it. Elections aren’t even the cause, they don’t think. “It’s a trauma response,” Francescut later said, while her teenage daughter danced nearby during a line dancing class at a local brewery, packed with families and twirling couples. Darling Allen agreed.

“This community has been through so much,” she said. Elections just became what everyone was mad about after 2020, when national politics and local elected officials became obsessed with Trump’s claims he’d actually won the election. “That’s why the meetings are so bad.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans in Shasta County say they are worried the anger and division will poison the community for good, and the goals of the ongoing assault on local institutions are increasingly unclear.

“This isn’t a big city. We can’t just stop talking to each other,” said lifelong resident Jenny O’Connell, who comes to the board of supervisors meetings each week and begs for civility. “‘Oh, gee, I’d love for my kid to go, but those other kids are there. I’d love to go to dinner, but the wrong people own that restaurant.’ It’s going to start breaking down our economy.”

What’s happening in Shasta County is a concentrated version of the same rage playing out in deep red counties across the United States. Think Kerr County in Texas or Cochise County in Arizona or Washoe County in Nevada, where election administrators have left office citing untenable treatment and consistently outraged constituents. While elections may be the outrage du jour, officials and longtime residents in all of these counties are concerned the damage to civic life will outlive the fad.

Justin Grimmer is a political scientist at Stanford University who monitors specific election conspiracy theorists and reaches out to the counties they engage with, offering rebuttal information. Shasta is one of many he’s visited and dozens he’s interacted with. But it stands out in his mind. While other counties may have talked about election integrity once or twice, Shasta has bogged down, pressing the issue in every supervisors meeting over nearly four years. In his mind, it’s a tragedy, with the community as collateral damage.

“Every minute you are spending working on a fake problem you are not working on a real one, and there are real problems in Shasta County,” he said. The lengths elected officials there are willing to go, and the millions of dollars they are willing to spend, also stand out to him. “It’s hard to think of a parallel.”

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting in Redding on April 2, 2024. Photo by Cristian Gonzalez for CalMatters
The Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting in Redding on April 2, 2024. Photo by Cristian Gonzalez for CalMatters

When things went too far

O’Connell — who speaks at meetings with a soft voice and often wears strawberry-themed or patterned clothing — has made reuniting the community a personal mission. Her own husband is among the loudest critics of the board of supervisors and writes a regular column on a local news and commentary website, so she recognizes how radical her position seems by contrast.

At times, even she thinks her attempts are futile. At a meeting in late March, Supervisor Patrick Henry Jones was caught on a hot mic referring to her as “stupid Jenny.” During the same meeting, a speaker disguised by a gas mask to protect his identity read “leaked” texts from a different supervisor that referred to O’Connell’s husband, the local blogger who is also a county employee, as “a stupid piece of shit” and joked about beating him up and taking his lunch money.

When O’Connell approached the microphone at a supervisors meeting the following week, she was in tears, struggling to get the words out.

“Patrick was right. I was stupid,” she said between sobs. “I thought if people saw that if this woman could get along that didn’t agree with them, that other people would do it too, but it’s just too far. They won’t.”

It’s hard for O’Connell to pin down exactly when things went too far, but she’s certain Jones should shoulder much of the blame. Darling Allen agrees. Even those who agree with his politics acknowledge he has done more than any other elected official to divide the county.

In 2010, while mayor of Redding, Jones protested the construction of a local bridge, vowing to never use it. Instead, he dressed up as George Washington and rowed across the Sacramento River in a wooden boat. He repeatedly invited a far-right documentary crew to film him — complete with flickering lights and dramatic music — doing things like dismantling COVID protections in county offices. In 2021, he paid a technician to come up from Bakersfield and give him a lie detector test after multiple county officials had accused him of lying about attempting to fire a former police chief. He passed.

“Is it possible that Jones actually believes his own bullshit?” a local website asked at the time.

Jones’ efforts have recently been focused on elections.

Last year he led an effort to rid the county of Dominion voting machines, of the type Trump complained about after the 2020 elections. Trump’s rhetoric on voting machines led to a wave of heavily Republican counties rejecting electronic voting of any kind, in favor of hand-cast, hand-counted ballots. Shasta County supervisors voted to hand count ballots in January 2023, over the objections of Darling Allen, who cited cost projections, the county’s own simulations, and multiple academic studies showing the process would be expensive and error prone.

Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, California on November 7, 2023.
Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, California on November 7, 2023.Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

Ultimately, the state stepped in, making the practice illegal in a county of Shasta’s size. Jones pressed it anyway, championing the establishment of an election commission to investigate voter fraud, which has been roiled since its inception by resignations and threats of lawsuits. Jones has repeatedly accused the elections department — and Darling Allen personally — of violating election law and fabricating evidence that hand counting is impractical.

There is no proof any of those claims are true. During her 20-year tenure, votes were counted efficiently and the results have never been successfully challenged. California law allows citizens to lodge complaints against local offices with county grand juries, which are then compelled to investigate. In the last five years, the local grand jury has been repeatedly convened for such investigations into her office following allegations that track closely with Jones’. No wrongdoing has ever been found.

For years, Jones has spent hours observing election processes in Darling Allen’s office. He spends much more time there than in his own office one floor up from the board’s chambers. If his constituents need some of his time, they know to skip that office altogether in favor of his family’s Redding gun store, Jones Fort.

There, seated below mounted elk and buffalo heads in the low-slung building that takes up much of a city block, he explained the origins of his election concerns and the reason he was so intent on hand counting. In 2012, he said, he sat next to local union leader Andrew Meredith and counted 30,000 ballots over the course of two days, part of a hand recount in a city council race. He said they never disagreed, and together caught more than 200 “computer errors.” Jones said they regularly had lunch after that, and became friends.

“When you agree on something 30,000 times you start to get along,” he said.

But Meredith flatly says the episode “didn’t happen” and says he’s never interacted socially with Jones. While Jones observed the counting process, Meredith and others who were present in 2012 say he personally counted no ballots. Ultimately, the total changed by two votes. Jones declined to address the contradiction.

“The thing with Patrick, I think,” said District 1 Supervisor Kevin Crye, who supports Jones and credits him with his own entry to politics, “is that sometimes he has two different experiences, combines them, and tells them as one story.”

But whether the stories Jones tells are partially true or completely fabricated hasn’t made much difference to Darling Allen, who said his accusations about her credibility and the web of conspiracies they’ve produced have significantly affected her life. Prior to Darling Allen’s retirement and two weeks after she returned from the hospital in November, Jones conveyed through staff that, now that the California Legislature had banned hand counting, he expected her to return hundreds of thousands of dollars from her budget meant to pay for the process.

Much of it had already been spent — hand counting requires significantly more space and different materials than the office had on hand. Returning the money would have meant laying off staff. Darling Allen’s heart rate began to race. That, she says, convinced her to retire.

Christian Gardiner speaks about his frustration with the delay in certifying the results of the March Presidential Primary Election in Redding on April 2, 2024. Photo by Cristian Gonzalez for CalMatters
Christian Gardiner speaks about his frustration with the delay in certifying the results of the March Presidential Primary Election in Redding on April 2, 2024. Photo by Cristian Gonzalez for CalMatters

And even though her deputy, Francescut, has stepped in as the registrar since she went on leave, Darling Allen finds Jones still looms large. The waitress who served Darling Allen her salt-free breakfast thanked her “for her service” and apologized for her treatment before asking when the results of Jones’ race would be announced.

A few days later, Darling Allen and Francescut got up and moved tables at a local lunch spot to avoid the ire of one of Jones’ friends, who was seated nearby.

Back at the office, election staff were continuing to tabulate the results of the primary election from a few days before. The results wouldn’t be final for about two weeks, but it wasn’t looking good for Jones.

Ultimately, his challenger — first-time candidate Matt Plummer — won so resoundingly that there will be no contest in November. Plummer got more than 60%, so he will take Jones’ place in January 2025.

When those results came before the board of supervisors in early April, Jones announced he had no intention of certifying the election. His gripes were many and varied: Francescut, following in Darling Allen’s footsteps, had violated vaguely described laws. He described rules for auditing results, which appeared to have no basis in state law, that were also violated. He was confident, he said, that the rest of the supervisors would agree that the results were so flawed as to be invalid.

In fact, that wasn’t in their power. Darling Allen had already certified the results, sending them to the secretary of state. The public declaration was a procedural step only. That didn’t seem to matter to Jones, who called machine voting “an insanity.”

“We’re purchasing machinery we cannot verify,” he said, adding a false claim that machines used by a quarter of Americans “can be hacked with $10.50 of parts.”

A recount performed in the recent election, he said, was error-filled. “They didn’t get it right,” he said. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

Ultimately, Jones was the only supervisor to reject the results.

Election fights mask Shasta’s larger problems

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