A bill to end the manual hand count of ballots in elections with more than 1,000 voters passed the Assembly on Friday, moving directly to Governor Newsom’s desk for his decision.
Assembly Bill 969, authored by Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin (D-Santa Cruz), would specifically prohibit an elections official from performing a manual vote count in a semifinal official canvass held on an established election date where there are more than 1,000 registered voters eligible to participate in that election, or in any contest held on a date other than an established election date, where there are more than 5,000 registered voters eligible to participate in that election. The bill would also only allow an elections official to conduct a manual vote count for a semifinal official canvass in a precinct if the count is approved by the Secretary of State, with state approved machines being utilized to do all county in elections above the minimum voter threshold.
In addition, AB 969 is an emergency statute, meaning that it would go into effect if passed.
Assemblywoman Pellerin’s bill is in response to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voting earlier this year to do away with machine counting and instead move back to hand ballots. The decision was divisive, passing 3-2 in March. Supporters cited cyber threats as the major reason for wanting to return to hand counting, to avoid any possible electronic miscounts or cheating. However opponents fought back that hand counting would be even more prone to error and at risk of possible cheating, as well as being more expensive. The fight in Shasta County has been ongoing for months, all the while with AB 969 advancing through the legislature and threatening to make a state law on it.
“Hand counts are complex, imprecise, expensive and resource intensive,” said Pellerin this week. “Research has consistently shown that humans are poor at completing rote, repetitive tasks.”
AB 969 moves to Governor’s Desk
AB 969 has largely passed on party lines. In April, the bill managed to pass in the Assembly 62-9 with 9 abstaining; the Senate vote earlier this week with a 31-6 with 3 abstentions conclusion. Due to multiple amendments since May, the bill was then sent back to the Assembly earlier this week for a final Assembly vote, where it passed on Friday.
“The bill, if it becomes law, would make it very clear in our elections code that counties are to use state-certified, federally qualified voting systems for tabulating their voting results,” said Pellerin on Friday, adding that Newsom still has not indicated which way he would go on the bill. “We are definitely going to be reaching out to our supporters, getting letters to him, that we experienced a rogue board of supervisors that attempted to derail elections and that is something we can’t tolerate and accept in the state of California.”
Meanwhile, in Shasta County, the bill has remained largely divisive. Shasta County Board of Supervisors Chairman Patrick Jones said this week that the county would sue to block AB 969 if the bill is signed into law. “We’re going to have free and fair elections in Shasta county,” said Jones. “Apparently money seems to be more important than making sure our elections are fair. State officials cannot guarantee that these machines haven’t been manipulated. The state is now attempting to block us from being able to have a free and fair election without any outside influence.”
Others in the County support the bill, with Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen adding, “We very much appreciate the work that’s been done in Sacramento to protect Shasta County voters and we hope the governor signs this bill quickly.”
Voting experts told the Globe that many counties across the country are watching what happens with AB 969, specifically if it is passed and if the courts wind up ultimately blocking the bill from going into effect.
“AB 969 is a very interesting possible law that both sides of the vote counting issue want some sort of political or legal precedent to go on,” said Ronnie Schaefer, an elections setup consultant. “Some want a law to present that it is possible to stop hand counting elections, and others want a legal precedent so that states can’t pass laws like this. It’s a lot more complex than people realize.”
Governor Newsom has until October 14th to sign or veto AB 969.
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