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)
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Nye County is poised to appoint a new county clerk in August and pave the way for hand-counting paper ballots in the 2020 general election, a move election watchers worry could create a logistical nightmare that could spill over to a congressional race and even statewide elections.
Marchant blamed his defeat for the 2020 race in fourth congressional district, an area that includes Nye, Esmeralda and Lincoln counties, on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud,
Kristopher Dahir, a Republican running against Marchant in the 2022 primary for secretary of state, criticized Marchant for creating “chaos” adding that it “almost seems like they want an insurrection instead of an election.”
“I don’t believe he lost because of fraud. I think he lost because he lost,” Dahir said. “I think when it comes to what we are doing now, I think he’s doing it to try to get elected. He’s doing this to show, ‘I’m the fighter, I’m the guy.’ I don’t believe we tear this place apart to try to fix something.”
Marchant did not respond to requests for comment.
Marchant, who has been labeled an election denier by the nonpartisan group States United Action, has pushed several rural counties to reconsider their electronic machines and turn toward hand-counting paper ballots.
In addition to Nye, Esmeralda, Lincoln and Lyon counties received similar pitches.
The district representing those counties, currently held by U.S. Rep Steven Horsford, is already seen as a tight race, bringing more concerns on how hand-counting paper ballots could delay or complicate election results.
“My campaign is committed to reaching every voter in my district and ensuring that everyone can make their voices heard through their vote,” Horsford said in a statement. “Our state has consistently sought to increase access to the ballot box, whether it’s on election day, through early voting or mail-in ballots. Regardless of the Nye County Commission’s ultimate decision, all ballots must be counted securely and accurately.”
Merlino told commissioners in March that hand-counting can lead to “a lot of error” and made it clear even considering a switch before the June 14 primary isn’t an option.
Commissioners now have their eyes on having the new system in place for November.
“We will be doing paper ballots during the general elections,” Nye County Commissioner Frank Carbone confirmed in a recent interview. “That’s the plan.”
Making this possible is Merlino’s plan to retire Aug. 5.
Three Republican candidates and one nonpartisan candidate are running to be her replacement. At least three of candidates have attributed alleged voter fraud as the reason they decided to run for clerk with at least one saying, without proof, the 2020 election was rigged.
In an interview Wednesday, Merlino said the three Republican candidates are in favor of hand-counting paper ballots and one of them most likely will be appointed in August.
“The primary will dictate who will go to the general depending on the votes,” Carbone said. “It will probably be picked between one of those three.”
Merlino said she had always planned to retire following the 2020 election but decided to stay following redistricting to ensure the county wasn’t left in a bad position.
She planned to stay through the entire election.
That changed when Marchant, along with other election deniers and conspiracy theorists, told commissioners, without proof, that electronic voter machines are easy to hack and thus transitioning to paper ballots is a more secure method.
Merlino said commissioners “took it hook, line and sinker and didn’t really ask for my opinion on it.”
“I just don’t want to fight this fight of going to all hand-count,” she said. “I just think we are going backward. If they want to increase security on what we have, fine increase security. Just don’t go backward.”
In his pitch to Nye, Marchant went as far as offering to fund the county transition to paper ballots, saying there was a possibility he could help out financially, though he didn’t offer specifics about the source of the funding.
When asked if there was enough time for a new official, who would step into the role in August, to switch to a hand-counting system, Merlino, who has held the office for about 20 years, was unsure.
“I love my county. I love the people and I don’t want to see them fail,” she said. “My hope truly is whoever gets in there is going to look at things and say, ‘oh, maybe this is not such a great idea.’ That’s what I am hoping for.”
Merlino gave an overview of the election process to commissioners in March and said the county last conducted paper ballots in 2002, when the population was about 15,000, before transitioning to electronic voting machines in 2004.
Even before the transition, paper ballots were tabulated through scanner machines.
“There is a lot of error on hand counts and the machines have never been off by a single vote,” she told commissioners.
Nye County is the sixth largest county in Nevada with 39,000 registered voters.
“I have been involved in hand counts. I’ve been here for 20 years,” Merlino said in an interview. “There is a lot of error involved and intense work. It’s not the route I personally wanted to go. I’ve always been happy with our election system we have with Dominion. It’s always been accurate.”
Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. has filed defamation suits against Trump-friendly media outlets, including a $1.3 billion suit against Fox News, for spreading conspiracies about the company’s machines.
‘Statutory deadlines, period.’
Kelly Fitzpatrick, with the Nye County Democratic Party, was skeptical the county could legally or financially make the switch.
“If they think they are going to go to paper ballots and think they have the money and positioning and personnel to count ballots by hand, that’s impossible,” she said. “There is no possible way they have that many people in order to do that nor do they have the office space to do that.”
Mark Wlaschin, the elections deputy, with the Secretary of State’s office, said they have reached out to clerks “discussing the possible transition to paper ballots” but didn’t elaborate on how the switch could affect tabulating the 2022 general election.
“We have discussed a number of other election- related concerns that the clerks and the public have raised and discussed different strategies for addressing them,” he said.
Nevada law gives counties a timeframe to tabulate votes and report from the state, and Wlaschin said “there is no deviation allowed for currently.”
“Whatever processes are conducted on the county level, they have to meet those statutory deadlines, period,” he said.
Merlino said everything would also have to be in place at-least six weeks before the election.
Dahir, who has been also critical of the state switching to mail-in ballots, said Marchant’s proposal creates more questions and confusion.
On top of costs and logistics of pulling the switch off, Dahir said “one thing I’ve heard over and over, and I would believe it, the longer these votes sit waiting to be done the more chance of fraud anyway.”
“When it comes down to hand-counting, if you just think about how this is laid out, that means the very people who don’t trust the other people are going to be counting their vote,” he said. “Or you’re going to have three or four people counting every one vote. None of it makes any sense.”
He also rejects Marchant’s unsubstantiated claims of mass election fraud saying “Nevada doesn’t have any proof.”
Nevada Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske investigated claims of massive voter fraud alleged by the Trump campaign and Nevada Republicans and found no evidence to support the accusations.
“When we have Jim Marchant saying he would not have stamped the (2020) vote, I don’t think he has the right to say that,” Dahir said. “I think that makes him ineligible for this office saying ‘I would break the law because I didn’t like the results.’”
Esmeralda commissioners voted to recommend their county clerks, who alone can make the decision, to switch to hand-counting paper ballots. During the presentation hearing in April, their clerk pushed back on the idea.
Lyon County commissioners, who also heard from Marchant and was considering a similar move, didn’t proceed after the county clerk raised concerns.
Prior to the rural counties debating hand-counting paper ballots, a similar measure in Washoe County, which also included placing National Guard or law enforcement at polling sites, was proposed but failed.
Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel in the Brennan Center of Justice’s Elections & Government Program, said while there isn’t a lot of research on paper ballots, what data exist show “it’s not really promising as a method.”
“There’s a few different methods like stack and sort, multiple people tallying,” she said.
One researcher in 2012, she said, “looked at those different methods and the error rates he found were up to 1% or 2% which is more than the margin of victory in a lot of contests.”
“What little evidence there is does not point to hand counting being a good way of doing the initial count,” she said.
Assuring the accuracy of electronic voting is much easier than doing so for hand-counting paper ballots, she said.
“You need multi-member counting teams, you need them to have oversight to make sure they’re not making careless mistakes, human mistakes by getting tired or not maliciously retallying votes,” she said. “It requires huge amounts of staffing and training for those sorts of things. Even with that, you can imagine it’s always possible for corruption to affect these things.”
Conspiracy theories, many of them pushed by former President Donald Trump and his political allies in an attempt to discredit the 2020 election results, have not only sparked the movement to change voting systems, but have also resulted in attacks on election officials.
Dahir said he is committed to accountability, but clerks have been unfairly “raked over the coals” when they were just following laws laid out by the state.
“I have fellow Republicans angry at me and say, ‘no you can change the law’ or ‘just not do it,’” he said. “Well, I don’t agree with that actually. Our job is to follow the law. I appreciate that people don’t like that but” if he’s elected secretary of state “there are laws I have to follow that I don’t always love.”
The Washoe County Clerk has been placed on paid leave after receiving threats to her office.
Wlaschin with the secretary of state’s office said even back in 2020 there had been an uptick “in the amount of questions and concerns that were addressed at the county level.”
“At the county and state level, election officials collectively, we follow the laws,” he said. “It’s a silly statement to have to make, but people don’t realize that. They think you’re personally choosing mail ballots to everyone or personally choosing to allow ballot harvesting. No. We follow the law. If the law changed tomorrow we’d enforce and implement the law whatever it states.”
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