Republican Secretary of State candidate and 2020 election denier Jim Marchant in March urging Nye County to switch to hand-counted paper ballots. (Screengrab of Nye County Commission meeting)
Nye County has positioned itself as the epicenter of a Donald Trump-fueled conspiracy about the security of electronic vote tabulators.
The Nye County Commission voted in March to make the county one of the first to act on the false narrative that machines that count votes are rigged, and recommended long-time elections clerk Sandra Merlina switch to hand-counting paper ballots.
Merlino, who retired in August months before her term was slated to end after working 20 years in the elections office, warned commissioners at the time that hand-counts were prone to “a lot of error.”
Newly appointed County Clerk Mark Kampf, who has falsely claimed that Trump won the 2020 election, plans to incorporate a hand-counting method. He told commissioners in September that volunteer voters there will hand count the roughly 30,000 ballots expected in the November election.
Across the country, Republicans aligned with Trump have directed ire at electronic voting machines, with Republicans in at least six states introducing legislation this year to ban the use of ballot tabulators (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington and West Virginia). Over 90 percent of U.S. election jurisdictions currently use electronic tabulators, with only the smallest counties opting to count votes by hand.
Many of the conspiracies around voting machines after the 2020 election centered on technology from Dominion Voting Systems. Lawyers for Trump claimed with no basis that Dominion employees worked with outside groups, liberal donor George Soros, and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Trump. Dominion has filed several defamation lawsuits against those who peddled the conspiracies.
Voting experts say that using hand counting as the default method to count ballots, which requires that all voters cast paper ballots, is incredibly expensive, burdensome, and time-consuming.
“This is totally unnecessary,” said Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center. “There is no evidence or reason to suggest that ballot tabulators don’t work.”
In fact, research shows that vote tabulators are more accurate than hand counts, which allow for a vast amount of human error, especially when the people counting ballots are overworked and tired around an election.
Tabulators are typically certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and jurisdictions almost always test them before an election to ensure their functionality and accuracy. Jurisdictions often hand count smaller groups of ballots after a tabulator is used to verify the accuracy of results.
Tabulators also allow for accessibility features to assist voters with disabilities who cannot hand mark a paper ballot.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that uses ideas from both parties, recommends pairing machine tabulators with an audit of paper ballots. “This balance minimizes the potential for human error during vote counting while maintaining a strong system of manual error-checking to unearth discrepancies that may arise during tabulation,” they write in an explainer.
Diaz said he suspects that those pushing for hand counting aren’t actually concerned with the security of tabulators.
“I don’t think that the push for hand counting paper ballots is really motivated by concerns about accuracy or technology,” he said. “I think it’s actually just an attempt to slow down the process and inject more confusion and make things more difficult for election workers.”
To hand count all of its ballots, Nye County plans to have teams of three people look at batches of 50 ballots. Kampf said he has already enlisted 57 volunteers to help with the process.
Kampf did not respond to a request for an interview.
While Nye County will hand count its ballots this year, it’ll also tabulate its votes with electronic machines. Officials have said the goal is to eliminate the use of machines for future elections, but using both methods this year allows the county to avoid new state regulations for counties that only conduct hand counts.
In late August, Nevada’s secretary of state’s office announced temporary regulations to take effect Oct. 1 for the general election, including a requirement for bipartisan counters. Nevada law doesn’t outlaw hand counting and the office wanted to be prepared if more counties decide to switch.
The proposed language for the regulation originally featured stronger restrictions but was amended after getting feedback from Kampf.
Voting experts said hand counting shouldn’t be permitted, and therefore does not need to be regulated. In testimony submitted to Mark Wlaschin, deputy secretary for elections, the Campaign Legal Center explained why hand counting ballots would help neither accuracy nor speed.
“A hand counting requirement would not only delay the reporting of results, but would also be severely disruptive to county officials’ ability to fulfill their critical responsibility to conduct the election securely and accurately,” attorney Julie Hochsztein wrote.
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada filed a lawsuit against the state after the regulations were announced, alleging that they deprive Nevadans of their rights to a uniform, statewide standard for counting votes. The group declined to comment on the pending litigation.
“The temporary regulation threatens to unleash electoral chaos,” the complaint says, noting that “votes cast in different counties, different precincts, or different contests may be counted very differently.”
Current Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske is term-limited. Jim Marchant, an election denier who is the Republican nominee to replace her, has been one of the most vocal forces behind the state’s push to institute hand counting. He has said that if elected, he would ditch electronic vote machines.
Democrat Cisco Aguilar, who is facing Marchant in November, has singled out Marchant’s role in Nye County as reason for worry about the future of elections in Nevada if Marchant wins.
“What Jim Marchant is doing in Nye County is irresponsible and dangerous,” Aguilar said during a campaign event in August. “He’s not a serious leader, but the threat he represents is very serious.”
Esmeralda County in Nevada has also switched to hand counting, but the county is the least populous in the state with just 1,030 residents in 2020, according to U.S. Census data. Still, it took the county more than seven hours in the June primary to count 317 ballots.
At that rate, it would have taken Clark County, Nevada’s most populous county, 6,375 hours, or more than 265 days, to hand count the 288,683 ballots cast in its June primary. Larger counties could no doubt devote more staff, volunteers, and resources to counting, but the process would undoubtedly require the county to miss the vote certification deadline.
The longer the public has to wait for election results, the more time candidates have to sow distrust in the results and for false theories and information to spread.
In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, both of whom have said that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, filed a lawsuit with unfounded allegations about the security of electronic vote tabulators and seeking the hand counting of ballots.
They claimed that the lawsuit wasn’t aimed at invalidating the 2020 election results—Cyber Ninjas, which conducted an audit of the vote in Maricopa County, conducted a hand count and found that Joe Biden actually won by more votes than the official margin—but instead about future elections.
In response to the lawsuit, election administrators testified that hand counting would be extremely expensive and require immense manpower. They also said that electronic voting machines aren’t connected to the internet, and can’t be hacked. A judge dismissed the suit in August, and Lake and Finchem have appealed that ruling.
If Lake and Finchem win in November, they’ll be in a position to change how the state counts its ballots. Arizona law does not require the use of electronic vote counting machines. The secretary of state also has the power to decertify machines, so Finchem could do that and refuse to certify new ones.
In New Hampshire, groups opposed to electronic tabulators figured out a way to force election officials in large counties to hand count some ballots in Sept. 13’s primary, despite the widespread use of AccuVote optical scan machines in the state which are not connected to the internet and cannot be hacked.
Conservative-leaning groups shared posts online urging voters to write in candidate names, even if the candidate was already printed on the ballot. Ballots with write-in candidates are separated for hand counting.
Secretary of State David Scanlan said the effort slowed down the release of results by hours in some counties.
“It really stresses the system when you have poll workers who have been at it for 12 to 16 hours now having to count all these ballots at the end of the night,” Scanlan told a local reporter with the Keene Sentinel. “It probably increases the chances for errors.”
Nevada Current reporter Michael Lyle contributed to this story.
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