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The Nevada Independent

Election official departures rising amid burnout, angry voters, new requirements

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Elections
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More Nevadans than ever made their voices heard in the 2020 election, spurred by intense interest in the presidential race and helped by law changes that vastly expanded paths to register and multiplied voting options that led hundreds of thousands of Nevadans to vote by mail, while many more opted to vote in person.

But the changes — and burdens — for the backend infrastructure and workforce that runs Nevada’s elections was far greater. Election clerks, registrars and the secretary of state’s office were forced to simultaneously run in-person and mail-in elections, while facing pushback from a vocal contingent of voters frustrated by public health precautions and widespread misinformation.

For years, state and local election officials largely went about their business out of the spotlight, but in the weeks and months following the 2020 election — as lies and conspiracies proliferated — they faced increasing hostility and attempts to undermine their work.

The rise in violent threats has sparked a national exodus of election workers. Dozens of local election officials in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have left their positions in the past 14 months.

In Nevada, similar changes are happening. By the 2024 election, new faces will make up more than a third of Nevada’s 17 top county election officials. 

In recent months, clerks in three counties have resigned in the middle of their terms, and two more have announced plans to not run for re-election.

Nevada’s clerks leaving their positions have cited different reasons, from wanting to spend more time with family to reaching retirement. But in interviews with The Nevada Independent, they have largely agreed that the job is becoming more difficult, as they face angrier and more distrustful voters while shouldering significantly more work to run elections.

“2020 was the worst in all my years ever,” said Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino. “Not just workwise … but the pressure, the angry people — it was pretty rough.”

Even as some clerks and registrars plan to remain in their positions for another year, (including Merlino, who is not running for the position again for the first time in more than 20 years), election workers across the state are concerned they could be facing an aggressive electorate again in 2022.

“I'm not gonna lie, I don't know that it's going to not be as emotionally charged as 2020,” said Aubrey Rowlatt, the clerk-recorder for Carson City. “I got to be honest, I'm not looking forward to it because there is so much hostility. I don't really want to jump into the pit with lions. But it's a means to an end, and we have to have the election.”

Rowlatt, elected to her position in 2018 after serving as chief deputy of elections for the previous four years, is not running for re-election after her single term. Rowlatt is leaving the position to spend more time with her family, but she said she is “burnt” juggling the diverse duties of the clerk-recorder’s office.

Though elections in Nevada’s most populous counties, Clark and Washoe, are run by appointed registrars, elections in Nevada’s 15 other counties are run by clerks, who are elected and have a wide array of responsibilities.

“I am the voter registrar and the election official,” said Humboldt County Clerk Tami Rae Spero, who represents a county of about 17,000 people. “I'm the ex-officio clerk of the courts for the Sixth Judicial District Court. I'm the secretary to the Board of County Commissioners, along with various other commissions and boards … For Humboldt County, we manage the business licenses. I'm currently the County Welfare director. There might be one or two other things in there.”

Those responsibilities can vary from county to county. In Carson City, Rowlatt works as both the clerk and recorder. In Mineral County, the clerk’s office is combined with the treasurer’s office.

All clerks have felt pressure from implementing multiple new voting rules and laws approved over the past two legislative sessions, including same-day voter registration, expanded early voting, automatic voter registration and a permanent expansion of mail voting. Largely lauded by voting rights advocates, the changes have made Nevada elections more complicated operational endeavors, which further heightens the burdens of those other responsibilities. 

“Nothing else stops. You're still running court. You're still handling jury trials, you're still covering meetings. So yeah, in the smaller locales where we do it all, it is definitely a challenge,” Spero said. “That three months right around elections, between the pre and the post, is a very stressful time.”

Increasing public distrust

A simmering undercurrent of mistrust in election systems exploded in 2020, when national and state Republicans claimed the election was rife with fraud and stolen from former Republican President Donald Trump in favor of Democrats and President Joe Biden.

In Nevada, high-profile Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidate and former Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, have led a crusade against the legitimacy of the 2020 election that has centered largely on Nevada’s electoral processes, including the inner workings of vote counting and the state’s electronic voting machines.

Though state officials have found no evidence of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, belief in conspiracies about the election being rigged has become widespread in Nevada. A September poll from The Nevada Independent and the Mellman Group found that more than a third of registered voters in the state believed that Biden only appears to have won Nevada because of fraud.

That trend has put pressure on local and state election officials, with voters across the state continuing to raise questions about the security of Nevada’s election systems, placing new and increased scrutiny on county clerks and registrars.

One of the key targets of the 2020 election conspiracies was Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company used by all of Nevada’s counties, except Carson City, during the 2020 election. Accusations against the company have posited that Dominion machines switched votes because of imagined links to anti-fascists and the government of Venezuela. Dominion has pushed back on some of these claims through defamation lawsuits filed against Fox News, Newsmax and others, with many of those cases still pending.

The revolt against Dominion even saw Lander County commissioners attempt to audit the county’s election machines last August, before the proposed audit was stymied by state and federal officials. Lander County later cut ties to Dominion, switching over to Election Systems & Software, the company used by Carson City.

“All the anger and the distrust has really made it difficult,” Merlino, the Nye County clerk, said. “I'm confident in our elections and to have people come up every commission meeting and demand a forensic audit of our elections, it just gets difficult that people that I've dealt with for many years don't trust the system now.”

Throughout the 2020 election, clerks across the state faced backlash from angry voters. Merlino said she had torn up ballots thrown in her face and witnessed aggressive poll observers unlike before.

Although presidential campaigns and political parties often recruit volunteers to serve as poll observers — individuals briefed on election law who observe polling sites for any potential law violations — the Trump campaign mobilized thousands of people across the country to act as poll watchers while preemptively stoking fears of election fraud.

Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula said she received death threats, and she was especially concerned for her poll workers who were on the frontlines during the election, dealing with voters face to face.

“Being berated a lot, that gets hard, especially when you're working such long hours and doing the work that we do,” Spikula said. “Our focus is just on running safe and accurate elections, so that got a little hard.”

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Office on June 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Spikula said Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria, who declined to be interviewed for this story, bore the brunt of the threats during the election. In the state’s most populous county, Gloria faced legal attempts from the Trump campaign to limit the counting of mail ballots and stop automated signature verification — moves that thrust him into the public spotlight. Former secretary of state and Republican candidate for governor Dean Heller said Gloria should be removed from his position for misconduct.

The threats also reached the state’s top election official. Last year, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske told The Nevada Independent that the level of threats, harassment and privacy concerns led her to unplug the phone landline in her home. Cegavske was also censured by her own party, over claims that her office “put the reliability of our elections in Nevada in question.”

Spikula said amid the increased pressure, she lost one employee to another county department.

“Even in my own staff, others have decided that it's just — they love the work that we do, but they can't take the emotional burden anymore,” she said. “It's across the nation that people are reevaluating if this is the work they want to continue to do in the future.”

Though Spikula said she loves the role and is remaining in her position, election workers across the state are leaving their jobs. 

In December, Lander County Clerk Sadie Sullivan — who cited family health issues — and Mineral County Clerk-Treasurer Christopher Nepper both resigned. Douglas County Clerk-Treasurer Amy Burgans was appointed to her position in December 2020, after the previous clerk resigned. Storey County Clerk-Treasurer Vanessa Stephens resigned earlier this year and will leave her position in February. Merlino and Rowlatt have both said they are not planning to run for re-election. The secretary of state’s office is also facing staffing challenges, and Cegavske will be termed out after 2022.

Though many of those officials have identified non-work-related reasons for leaving, Merlino said the pressure from the 2020 election even got to her family.

“My family was urging me to get out as soon as possible. That was just too much on all of us,” she said.

More work, more responsibilities

During the 2020 election, the challenges of election misinformation were exacerbated by myriad administrative changes, as election officials across the state worked to implement new policies including same-day voter registration and wide-scale mail-in voting.

Several clerks explained that the expansion of mail-in voting doubled their workload, as they had to prepare for the possibility of all voters choosing to vote by mail or vote in person. That challenge was compounded by impatient voters, who gave little leeway to officials navigating a new landscape.

“You're basically running two full-blown elections,” Rowlatt said. “The hardest part was feeling undermined. We were still learning what the new laws were requiring … A lot of times, the voters want an answer and they want it right then and there, and we have to research and make sure that we're giving them correct answers, especially when the laws are so new to us.”

The 2020 election cycle also saw the implementation of same-day voter registration, a process that allows people to register on the day of the election. The process is lauded by voting rights advocates, but can slow down vote counting because it requires a post-election check on whether someone has registered twice.

Election officials were also handling more voters than ever before, as the country saw record turnout during the 2020 election. In Clark County, Gloria faced national pressure while attempting to count a record number of mail ballots that continued to arrive days after the election because of an extended deadline for mailed ballots.

Amid the high turnout, officials sought to prevent long lines seen during the primary election by maintaining a high number of in-person polling locations, while also pressing forward with a rapid expansion of mail-in voting.

“We were out the door of the courthouse, down and around the block. It was crazy,” Spero said.

The changes to elections from the 2019 legislative session, 2020 special session and 2021 legislative session only added to the already lengthy list of responsibilities Nevada’s election clerks handle.

Election officials put ballots together. They process voter registrations. They conduct tests on election machines before and after elections to ensure they are working properly. They train poll workers and other employees. They conduct candidate filing. They tabulate ballots cast and transmit election results to the secretary of state. They conduct recounts. They perform post-election auditing and certification. This year, they are even handling changes to electoral maps from redistricting.

“When I started, literally, the election was done the day after the election, everything's put away. We had the results out, it was a done deal,” Merlino said. “Now, elections go on forever because the election itself, with the late mail ballots coming in and everything else … They're not even done for a month, just with the post tests, everything we have to do.”

With an increasingly long list of responsibilities, Merlino questioned whether others would be interested in taking on the role.

“I think it's getting to be so much work and so overwhelming that I just don't know people are gonna be knocking on the doors to run for these positions, and I don't know how many are retiring this year,” she said.

Boxes of ballots are wheeled in to be counted as part of a recount at the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 07, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Concerned but hopeful for 2022

Less than five months away from the primary election, Nevada’s election officials are hopeful that 2022 will be calmer than the previous election cycle, but some are still concerned about the heavy workload and potential for more hostility.

With the permanent expansion of mail-in voting, Spikula said she has been preparing since the end of the 2021 legislative session last June. Because of the heightened workload, she has received additional help from the county and is hoping to fill two new positions before the next election. But even with more resources, she continues to look for ways to improve the process.

“We're looking at space efficiencies, equipment, ways that we can process ballots more efficiently and maintaining the chain of custody, making sure that our audits are solid,” she said.

Spikula said some of her primary concerns for the upcoming elections are things that are out of her control, including supply chain issues and the rising costs of printing and postage, but specific concerns about elections this year range from county to county.

In Humboldt County, Spero said that she had fewer poll workers than usual during the 2020 election, and she is worried the same could happen this year.

“What's occurring, the anger, the partisan issues, are making people afraid to actually step up and help with elections,” she said. “Without them, it would be very hard to put an election on.”

In Nye County, Merlino said she is concerned that poll observers could be aggressive once again in 2022. And even though she has seen concerns about the 2020 election diminish as audits in other states have concluded, she still has open questions about whether voters will trust the election systems in place.

“I don't know how the primary is going to go,” Merlino said. “Are people going to trust it? Aren't they going to trust it? They don't trust mail ballots, but they don't trust our Dominion equipment. So how are they going to vote?”

Several prominent Nevada Republicans, including Laxalt, have already cast doubt on legitimacy of the 2022 elections. Last September, more than a year away from the 2022 midterms, Laxalt hinted that he could mount legal challenges to “tighten up the election.”

In Carson City, Rowlatt said she is working to inform voters about how the elections work, but that can be difficult because some voters have already made up their minds.

“I'm really not looking forward to the negativity,” Rowlatt said. “But I know that we will do our best. and we will always have a smile on for our voters and try to provide an atmosphere where they're safe and able to securely cast their ballot.”

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