Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, a former Santa Cruz County clerk, ended the legislative session with 10 of her bills signed into law. Of those, six focused on voting. One bill, AB 969, takes direct aim at a controversy over a Shasta County plan to hand-count ballots in an upcoming special election.
For Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, her first full legislative session as an elected official in Sacramento was the touchdown conclusion to the pass she threw herself over her nearly three decades as Santa Cruz County clerk.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed 10 of her bills into law. Six of those laws focused on voting, a reflection of Pellerin’s expertise as well as the growing politicization of one of democracy’s existential rights. Her bills clean up inefficiencies she found in elections that cross county lines, expand accessibility for disabled voters, create options to streamline ballot tallying, and make it easier for no-party-preference voters (the state’s third-largest voting block at 22.5% of the registered electorate) to vote in presidential primaries.
Pellerin, who was appointed by Speaker Robert Rivas to chair the influential Assembly Committee on Elections, told Lookout that these were “all things I thought about when I was county clerk.” Current Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber, who worked as Pellerin’s assistant for 13 years before succeeding her, said many of these new laws were reminiscent of the conversations she and her boss used to have.
“During the time I worked with her, we talked about a lot of this stuff,” Webber said. “She gets that it’s important to connect with voters and do anything we can to make it a good experience.”
Yet, the Pellerin bill making the most headlines, and making her a target of some Northern California conservatives, was a direct response to an event for which she had no foresight.
In March, the conservative-led Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to terminate its contract with Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company at the center of conservative theories about a stolen 2020 presidential election. Instead of putting out a request for proposals for contracts with other voting machine companies, the county decided it would, for the foreseeable future, conduct its elections using a manual tally.
“When I read that news story I was like, what? That is not a wise move,” Pellerin told me over the phone while battling a post-COVID-vaccine cough. “So, I started working with the elections committee staff and the Secretary of State’s office to put together a bill.”
Her bill, Assembly Bill 969, prohibits elections officials from hand-counting ballots as the main form for tallying in an election, except when there are fewer than 1,000 registered voters in a general or primary election, and fewer than 5,000 registered voters for a special election. The bill also requires election officials to use a state-certified voting system, and restricts a jurisdiction, such as Shasta County, from terminating an existing voting machine contract without a transition plan and a signed contract for a new, certified voting system.
Pellerin’s message to Shasta County: Correct your course.
“It’s critically important for counties to have a state-certified, federally qualified voting system so that they are transparent and secure and auditable,” Pellerin said, saying hand-counting was “necessary” to audit the machine count but should not stand on its own. “In Shasta County and with the size of the ballot we have, hand-counting can be very complex and it takes a very long time to do it accurately and thoroughly.”
Pellerin described manual tallies to even just audit the machine count as labor-intensive. They are typically done with four people: One person reads the vote, another observes the person reading the vote to ensure they are relaying what is on the ballot, then two other people write down what has been read to them.
“You stop every 25 votes or so to make sure you’re in sync, and I can’t tell you how often you’re not,” Pellerin said. “And then you have to start over. Imagine doing that for every contest on a ballot, and every voting position. This is going to save Shasta County millions of dollars. We have incredible technology in our lives and there is really no good reason to not utilize it in conducting our elections.”
The bill passed the legislature almost perfectly along party lines, with Assemblymember Diane Dixon of Huntington Beach as the only Republican to support the bill.
Yet Shasta County’s elected leaders have not welcomed Sacramento’s direction on this. On Oct. 5, a day after Newsom signed the bill into law, Shasta County held a mock election to test the manual tally system. After the signing, Supervisor Patrick Jones said the county would use the hand-counting system for its special November election and at least through the March 2024 primary. Jones told the Redding Record Searchlight that he thought the November special election was grandfathered in,
“We have already made our decision,” Jones said, “and a majority of the board has already spoken.” He said that if county counsel says Shasta County elections officials can continue the hand count, since it was the plan before Newsom signed the bill, then they push on. But, if counsel advises that the new law will prohibit them from hand-counting in the immediate elections, then, “I will push to immediately litigate against the State of California and ask the judge for a stay.”
Pellerin has said that the bill would not allow for any grandfathering-in. She told me that although she has not heard directly from the county or its leaders, she has received social media “thank-yous,” including from what she called “conservative voters in Shasta County.”
“They are very grateful this bill was carried and signed into law,” Pellerin said. “They believe that it is what ensures a democracy and the integrity of a vote, and that it’s accurate and verifiable and accessible and meets all the requirements necessary for people to have faith in their elections.”
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