Audit calls for Washoe County elections overhaul, but some question the review itself
An 80-page external audit calling for an overhaul of the Washoe County Registrar of Voters office — citing a lack of staffing, adequate training, communication and security in the county’s elections — was the topic of discussion at a contentious Friday meeting of the county’s audit committee.
Several mistakes during the 2022 general election, including misprinted sample ballots that cost more than $178,000 to be replaced and failure to mail ballots to a handful of voters living in remote areas of the county, prompted the county manager’s office to invite the third-party audit.
The Elections Group — an Illinois-based consultancy for election administration in jurisdictions large and small — completed the audit May 31. The commission chamber was full of public commenters who shared concerns about the auditor, ranging from the company being an out-of-state business to alleged “leftist” ties and illegal activity.
The Elections Group found that lack of training, supervision, internal and external communication, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were the driving force behind several issues that arose during the 2022 general election.
To address these concerns before the 2024 presidential election, the audit made recommendations in eight categories: staffing, ballots, election worker management, voter registration, communication, elections technology, physical space and SOPs.
The audit found that the elections department relied heavily on temporary employees for complicated and sensitive tasks and that its organization left the registrar and deputies to do administrative tasks, taking away time from overseeing election procedures. On top of filling current vacancies, the audit suggests adding several executive assistant, deputy and communication positions.
In order to remedy the issues faced in 2022 with ballot printing, delivery and tracking, the report suggests developing more detailed standard operating procedures, training and supervision over these processes. Because of high turnover in the office staff and temporary election workers, the report says “a standard, organized plan to onboard and train election workers is needed.”
Audit committee discusses priorities and next steps
The audit committee convened on Friday to discuss, rather than deliberate, The Elections Group's report — meaning they did not take or recommend any action to county commissioners. The committee is made up of one county commissioner, one alternate commissioner and four community members with expertise in the area (mostly CPAs).
Jeanne Herman, designated commissioner for the committee, and alternate Chair Alexis Hill were present.
After opening public comment, Hill said it was “amazing to have [citizens] here to discuss this” and acknowledged many of the concerns they brought about elections in Washoe County. Though many of the commenters identified as conservatives, she noted that she, a Democrat, saw issues during her 2020 campaign and in 2022 that motivated her to request the external audit.
Hill attributed these issues to lack of staffing in the registrar’s office, reiterating data from the audit: The number of registered voters in the county has increased 50 percent since 2010 and the elections department staff has not increased to meet increased demand.
“We have not made this a modern office,” Hill said.
The report also noted that 53 percent of voters in 2022 used mail-in ballots, up from 7 percent in 2018 after a pandemic-era policy to send mail-in ballots to all Nevada voters unless they opted out.
Given the volume of issues identified by the consultants, a focus of the discussion was which recommendations should be prioritized.
Among the priorities Hill identified were developing standard operating procedures, creating a public information officer position to increase communication with citizens, and implementing procedures for more accurate ballot tracking.
According to Hill, the commission — which has only approved the funds for the initial report from The Elections Group, not any additional funding for the work they propose doing based on their findings — will not move forward until the registrar’s office provides a response to the recommendations and an estimated timeline. Committee members Barbara Kinnison and Charlene Hart agreed with Hill that a response from the registrar’s office was needed before any further action was taken.
But not all committee members were in agreement that the county should continue to work with the auditors.
Herman said, to cheers from the public, that the concerns stated in the report had already been brought to the attention of the county by citizens.
“We should not continue to pay The Election Group to do this work,” she said.
Instead, Herman, as well as committee member Matthew Buehler, advocated revamping the registrar’s office with the help of local experts. Their suggestions ranged from a citizens’ election advisory committee to hiring a local project manager, rather than contracting with The Elections Group to implement changes.
Citizens raise concerns about election integrity, out-of-state influence
During public comment periods that took up most of the two-hour meeting, concerns about the integrity of elections in Washoe County, as well as the county’s contract with the auditors, were at the forefront.
Several commenters said they felt a lack of faith in how elections in the county are conducted. Some brought photos and videos from their time as election workers or observers that they said demonstrated security vulnerabilities and even direct efforts to interfere with ballot counting.
A refrain repeated throughout the comments was that the concerns identified in the report had already been brought up by citizens, and that the audit was a waste of taxpayer money.
Some took further issue with the county working with The Elections Group, making several allegations of corrupt and illegal actions.
Robert Beadles — a Washoe County resident known for big spending on conservative causes, spreading falsehoods about the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 election, and implanting himself within the county’s conservative political groups — was the first to speak.
He claimed that by working with The Elections Group the county was “discriminating against every business in the state,” because The Elections Group had not registered with the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office. Beadles said the contract with The Elections Group should be terminated or he will sue. He, and many other commenters, also called for County Manager Eric Brown to be removed from office.
There is no filing for The Elections Group available on Nevada’s business entity search. However, Nevada law states that if a foreign (meaning out-of-state or international) corporation fails to file with the secretary of state, the failure does not impair the validity of any contract of the corporation. Corporations are subject to fines up to $10,000 for such violations.
The contract between The Elections Group and Washoe County specifies that the auditor is solely responsible for procuring any permits or licenses required to perform the audit.
The Elections Group did not respond to an after-hours request for comment on Beadles’s allegations.
Another claim echoed by several commenters was that The Elections Group has ties to “leftist” organizations, including the liberal financier George Soros, who is oft-cited in antisemitic conspiracy theories.
The Elections Group partners with the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), an election reform nonprofit. Commenters at the Friday meeting echoed criticisms mentioned by conservative groups across the country that the CTCL is “left-of-center” and has received support from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.
There is no conclusive evidence of a connection between The Elections Group and George Soros.
Penny Brock, a member of the Washoe County GOP Executive Committee, alleged that the meeting should not have taken place, nor should the report have been completed after a tied vote on a motion regarding The Elections Group's audit at a March commission meeting.
On March 28, the board voted 2-2 on a motion to approve the contract with The Elections Group, meaning it failed according to board rules. However, the same motion was approved 4-1 on April 11 during a nearly 11-hour board meeting after a vacancy on the board was filled by a Gov. Joe Lombardo appointee, Republican Clara Andriola. Board rules do not prevent a motion previously voted on from being reintroduced.
In spite of the tensions, many commenters thanked the committee for hearing comments at the start of the meeting as well, after the board limited the public comment to after discussion following marathon meetings lasting several hours. The move was criticized as stifling First Amendment rights, even though more public comment is still allowed than is required by Nevada’s Open Meeting Law.