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How election conspiracy theories tore apart Shasta County

From left to right, election observers Susan Wilson, Susanne Baremore, and Tom Morehouse watch through a window as poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, on Nov, 7, 2023. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters
From left to right, election observers Susan Wilson, Susanne Baremore, and Tom Morehouse watch through a window as poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, on Nov, 7, 2023. Photo by Fred Greaves for 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 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.

Cathy Darling Allen, the County Clerk and Registrar of Voters for Shasta County, in Redding on April 2, 2024. Darling Allen will retire in May to reduce stress in light of new health concerns.
Cristian Gonzalez
/
CalMatters
Cathy Darling Allen, the County Clerk and Registrar of Voters for Shasta County, in Redding on April 2, 2024. Darling Allen will retire in May to reduce stress in light of new health concerns. 

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.

Joanna Francescut, Shasta County assistant county clerk and registrar of voters, outside the Shasta Superior Court in Redding on April 2, 2024.
Cristian Gonzalez
/
CalMatters
Joanna Francescut, Shasta County assistant county clerk and registrar of voters, outside the Shasta Superior Court in Redding on April 2, 2024.

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.”

The Shasta County Board of Supervisors votes to certify the primary election in Redding on April 2, 2024.
Cristian Gonzalez
/
CalMatters
The Shasta County Board of Supervisors votes to certify the primary election in Redding on April 2, 2024.

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

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.”

Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding on Nov. 7, 2023.
Fred Greaves
/
CalMatters
Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding on Nov. 7, 2023.

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 countyof 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.

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.

A voter fills out their ballot at a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake during a special election in Shasta County Nov. 7, 2023.
Fred Greaves
/
CalMatters
A voter fills out their ballot at a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake during a special election in Shasta County Nov. 7, 2023.

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.

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.
Cristian Gonzalez
/
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.

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.

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.

Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, on Nov. 7, 2023.
Fred Greaves
/
CalMatters
Poll workers process ballots at the Shasta County Elections office in Redding, on Nov. 7, 2023.

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

While Jones’ loss was resounding, Supervisor Kevin Crye’s own victory was a squeaker. As part of the March primary, voters had to determine whether the first-term Republican should be recalled. The effort had been raging since nearly the first month he took office in January 2023, when he surprised voters by joining Jones in ending the Dominion contract. He defeated the recall attempt by only 50 votes.

“I didn’t distrust the machines,” he told me. But he said it was clear to him, by the time he took office, that community anger at Dominion wasn’t going away. He also said he preferred to buy machines rather than continue an expensive rental contract. Regardless, he does not personally feel there is adequate proof to suggest the 2020 election was stolen. This distinction matters to Crye, and he says it has been ignored by local and national media. “They keep calling me a fascist. I’m not a fascist.”

For her part, Darling Allen doesn’t find this explanation comforting. During his first race in 2022, Crye — who runs a successful chain of Ninja Warrior gyms — visited her office daily to observe vote counting. Elections staff took pains to engage with him, answering questions about the process. “We spent hours with him explaining how things worked over multiple days, and he was pleasant and understood,” she said, concluding about his 2023 rejection of Dominion machines, “His vote was two-faced.”

That vote sparked the recall effort. Then, a county-funded visit to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s property in Minnesota fanned the flames on the outrage. By the time of Crye’s March 2023 visit, Lindell was already in hot water for his false claims of election malfeasance — he’d been kicked off Twitter, had his cell phone seizedby the FBI, and was subpoenaedby the Jan. 6 Commission. Crye pulled out of speaking at a Lindell event as a result of the controversy.

The sheer number of public battles over elections have given the false impression, county employees and local Democrats say, that the issue of voting and Darling Allen’s management of it are the most dire problems Shasta County faces. In reality, it has far more pressing concerns: It has among the state’s highest poverty rates and highest infant mortality rates. Suicides occur there at two-and-ahalf times the state average. Homelessness is worse than anyone can remember.

Darling Allen isn’t immune: She’s raising her 6-year-old granddaughter, whose mother has battled drug addiction for years. Darling Allen is open about it — many local families have been broken apart by the county’s high addiction rate.

Shasta County was home to some of the first settlers to California, who were drawn to the area during the Gold Rush. The area that now comprises the city of Redding, the county seat, was originally called Poverty Flats. After the rush wore itself out, the surrounding forests provided thousands of well-paying timber jobs that sustained the community for decades. By the 1970s the industry was declining nationwide, and by the 1990s, legislation to protect the threatened spotted owl shut down nearly all area timber mills. It’s still a sore spot for many.

In 2018, a camper trailer scraping pavement ignited what would become the second most devastating fire in California history — the Carr Fire, named for the intersection at which it started. Before it was completely contained that August, the blaze destroyed 1,100 homes in Shasta County. Many were never rebuilt.

The housing crisis has been compounded by the growth of a local megachurch, Bethel. Thousands have moved from across the country and the world to live near and participate in the church, which has a reported 11,000 members in a city of 90,000 people. The church’s online streaming platform and wildly successful music program — Bethel Music, which has 5 million subscribers on YouTube — have made it a household name in Evangelical Christian worship circles across the world.

Longtime residents say it’s changed the fabric of the community, though they disagree on whether that’s good. The church has driven “faith tourism” to the county, and has brought some racial and ethnic diversity. Nearly all of the new businesses — the hip cafes, pizza restaurants, and bars with good happy hour specials — have been opened by people who moved to the area for Bethel.

Bethel describes itself as “an American non-denominational neo-charismatic megachurch.” It has a conversion therapy program and ministries dedicated to “faith healing” and “dead raising.” Homeless residents, especially those with visible disabilities, say they are sometimes approached several times per day to be “healed” by Bethel churchgoers. In 2019, the church unsuccessfully attempted to resurrect the 2-year-old daughter of one of the pastors.

So, while many in the community are relieved to see Jones’ tenure on the board of supervisors come to a close in January, Plummer’s ascendence has sparked anxieties of its own. Plummer — who will succeed Jones next year — moved to the county almost a decade ago to join Bethel, and is an active participant in the church along with his wife and three daughters.

Plummer hopes that he can help restore order to the board of supervisors’ meetings. His day job is doing team building and critical thinking exercises for companies, and he’s got a lot of ideas for how that might come in handy.

“Maybe I’ll put a marble in a jar for every speaker who follows the rules,” he said, laughing. “When the jar is full I’ll pay for a pizza party.”

Francescut returns to her old job, and a tough task

Francescut took over the reins from Darling Allen in December. She’s been working in the elections office since 2008, when she took an hourly job verifying signatures on ballot petitions. She’s worked her way up in the 16 years since.

At a meeting in April, Francescut explained an extended absence after last November’s election: Her father-in-law had died after a two-year battle with cancer. A man in the audience — whose dog took up the width of the aisle next to his seat, secured by a rope leash — saw an opportunity.

“Karma’s a bitch!” he yelled.

Francescut said she’s mostly unfazed by the treatment. Raised in what she described as “the Ruby Ridge part” of Idaho, she says she’s learned not to take political disagreements personally. That’s becoming more and more difficult, she acknowledges.

Not every gathering in Shasta County is that way, though. Crye, the supervisor for District 1, holds weekly Friday morning gatherings at a coffee shop in his district. While many of the faces there are the same as those in the supervisors meetings, none of them are screaming. A recent one in early April featured a candid conversation about the county’s interpersonal problems. O’Connell was among the attendees, as usual, smiling quietly at the dozen or so people also gathered.

The attendees, mostly supporters of Crye, agreed the community was increasingly polarized and the supervisors meetings were out of hand. They said, though, that things had simmered down from the type of bullhorn-assisted screaming matches that had broken out during COVID lockdowns.

“What am I supposed to do about it? I don’t think I can do anything about it,” Crye, the elected chair for the board of supervisors, told the room when asked how he could shift the tone.

Francescut thinks the supervisors have more influence on tone than they realize, but — as of mid-June — she is no longer the target of the rage being voiced in their meetings. Last week, after two days of public interviews, the board of supervisors voted 3-2 to hire retired prosecutor Tom Toller to fill Darling Allen’s position through 2026. Toller has never run an election or volunteered as a poll worker. Francescut, who has worked for the office for 16 years, will return to the deputy position.

“What goes on in the elections office at this point is somewhat of a black box to me,” Toller told the board the day before he was appointed. “But I’m committed to quickly learning.”

Republican supervisors lauded Toller for his leadership style and his willingness to buck instructions issued by the secretary of state. In his cover letter to the board, Toller cited his belief that the county was “in no way beholden to the Secretary of State in Sacramento, as if her interpretation was chapter and verse of Holy Writ.”

Clint Curtis, an attorney championed by Jones, also interviewed. After the 2000 election, Curtis claimed to have invented software that could manipulate the results of an election, and has been making similar claims since. Jones allowed him to speak at length during his public interview, where he made clear he would fire most of the staff.

Francescut’s interview, by comparison, was far less collegial. After interrogating her for decisions made by Darling Allen, Jones accused Francescut of “mal-conduct” that he characterized as “grave.” He repeated false accusations that both of them had violated the law, and that he’d witnessed them make errors. When Supervisor Mary Rickert read emails in support of Francescut and highlighted her popularity with the public, Crye said such support was immaterial.

“We’ve all been elected by the people in our district to make the best decisions we feel that need to be made,” he said. “If the people wanted to bring back slavery, I’d say you probably wouldn’t do that.”

Crye said he would vote for Francescut if Jones and others supported Curtis, which ultimately swung the vote in Toller’s favor.

Employees of the elections office were lined up along the back of the room as the vote came in, showing support for Francescut. Many of them are likely to leave as a result of the decision — more than a third of the office’s 21 staff members have already resigned this year.

A voter with a mail-in ballot walks into a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake, during a special election in Shasta County Nov. 7, 2023.
Fred Greaves
/
CalMatters
A voter with a mail-in ballot walks into a polling station at the American Legion in Shasta Lake, during a special election in Shasta County Nov. 7, 2023.

For her part, Francescut she has no plans to leave. “I can’t go anywhere before November, ethically,” she said, though the decision devastated her. She’ll spend the next few months helping to train Toller and attempting to retain the staff she can convince to stay. The comparative obscurity of the deputy position will also allow her to spend less time interacting with the board.

“I’m tired of being told ‘break the law, and if you don’t we won’t hire you.’ Toller can take that heat for a while,” she said. “I’m just looking for some kind of joy to come back to this process.”

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas.
CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.