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Interview: Shasta County registrar discusses challenges of contentious recall election

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County of Shasta
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Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen.

Tuesday is the last day for Shasta County voters to cast their votes in the recall election of Second District Supervisor Leonard Moty. The election has been fraught with tension, with proponents claiming Moty should have done more to push back against COVID-19 restrictions implemented to protect public health.

Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen said on Tuesday that the county had already received ballots from about 30% of the nearly 22,000 eligible voters in this election. Drop boxes and polling locations close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Despite the growing divide and mistrust of public officials across all departments, Allen is working to ensure a fair and free election. NSPR’s Adia White spoke with her about the challenges.

Interview Highlights

Can you describe the political atmosphere right now in Shasta County? 

We have a lot of emotion — that's very obvious, right? — on the part of a lot of supporters on both sides of the issues that are being debated around this election. And sometimes folks are letting their emotion kind of carry them away. And so we have seen some people not behave particularly appropriately or particularly nice, which we are able to handle. And we have done a lot of preparations for today, made a lot of security enhancements to how we do our business and how we will accomplish the task of administering this election today.

When you say security enhancements, can you describe what you've had to change and why those decisions remain? 

It's really difficult sometimes to talk about security because while you want to, we always want to be as transparent as we can in elections. There is an element of kind of giving the keys to the store away when you describe every single thing that you do to keep something safe, right? So I'm not going to talk necessarily about specifics, but certainly there has been quite a lot of talk around this election and around these causes that caused us some concern and caused other members of the community some concern. And so we've been working with law enforcement to make sure that our poll workers are safe, our staff is safe and that we're able to do our job, which is to be the neutral arbiter of this process.

I know you talked a little bit about mistrust in elections, especially over the last few years. What have you done for this election to try to rebuild that trust and help people feel secure in the system?

So, you know, it's interesting. I keep getting asked that and I'm happy to answer the question, but there is part of me that wonders why the people who created the mistrust aren't being asked that question. This office hasn't done anything to create mistrust.

But that's our job right? To engage the public in this system and engage the public in having their voices heard. And that's the most important thing about the work that we do is making sure that every voter, no matter what their political affiliation or their political opinions, is able to cast their ballot in a neutral space without interference and to be able to cast that ballot independently and privately. It's just a really difficult thing to try and overcome the voice of folks who have national reputations and national platforms. There's just no way I'm going to ever out-shout any of those folks. At the same time, I'm the person who is the subject matter expert in how to make this all work, right?

One of the things that we do to try and engender trust and to get folks comfortable with how we process ballots and how the election works here locally is to invite them in. Invite folks to be observers, to come into our office and see what we do and how we do it. To go to polling places. We have observers in at least two of our 12 polling places right now and probably more. Which is good, because those observers will get to see exactly how it works and what we do and all the security measures that we take to secure the election and ensure its integrity. The bottom line is we're doing the work the same way that we've always done it and we're just doing it with a lot more eyes on which at the end of the day is fine as long as people report what they see accurately.

What are  Shasta County’s policies to allow public observation of the process?

We're actually required by law to have an observer plan. Every election department in California is required to do that. In California, anyone who wants to watch the process can. And we encourage folks to do that. It's definitely an investment of time.

But we really 100% foundationally believe that if our voters don't believe in the election process, we have a very serious problem in this country. We want to do everything we can to engender that trust. So it's definitely something that we are motivated to do. I'm just not always convinced that our efforts are fruitful. And I wouldn't have said that two years ago. So I can spend 20 or 30 or 40 minutes on the phone with a voter and at the end of that time period, have them say to me, "Well, you know, you sound really sincere, but I don't think you're telling me the truth." I've been called a liar more in the last two years than in my entire life put together.

Adia White is a broadcast journalist and producer with nearly 10 years of experience. Her work has appeared on WNYC, This American Life, Capital Public Radio and other local and national programs. She started at North State Public Radio as a freelance reporter in 2017 before leaving for a stint at Northern California Public Media in Santa Rosa.