Elections and ‘Big Lie’ come to the fore in secretary of state primaries
In the race for Nevada’s secretary of state, no issue has consumed the campaign discourse like the relitigation of the 2020 election, and the election policies that have spurred years of conspiracy theories and political fights.
But overseeing elections isn’t the only responsibility in the secretary of state’s job description, which also includes running the state’s campaign finance databases and filing systems, business and corporate registrations, and notaries.
In an environment still defined by the fight over 2020, seven Republicans have crowded the field with bids to replace termed out Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, including five who raised five-figure dollar amounts and funded serious campaigns: Former Assemblyman Jim Marchant, Reno developer and former state Sen. Jesse Haw, former Clark County District Court Judge Richard Scotti, former Las Vegas television news anchorman Gerard Ramalho and Sparks City Councilman Kris Dahir.
A poll of the race conducted last week by The Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights found a plurality of likely Republican primary voters, 34 percent, were still unsure of their vote, while another 26 percent of respondents saying they would choose “none of the above.”
Marchant led the pack with 16 percent support, followed by Scotti (8 percent), Haw (7 percent), Ramalho (3 percent) and Dahir (2 percent), with a 4.4 percent margin of error.
On the other side of the aisle, only one Democrat has emerged in the race: lawyer and former Nevada Athletic Commission Chair Cisco Aguilar.
Just days remain before the start of early voting on May 28, and just a little more than three weeks remain before the primary election on June 14.
The Republican primary
Perhaps more than any other candidate in the Republican field, former Assemblyman Jim Marchant has staked his campaign on overhauling the state’s electoral administration in the wake of the “Big Lie.”
As the Trump campaign sought to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential race in the courts, Marchant — then a candidate in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District — brought his own challenge, echoing claims of voter fraud in a lawsuit that sought an entirely new election.
A state district court judge dismissed that suit, and Marchant ultimately lost the race against Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford by more than 16,000 votes, or roughly 5 percentage points.
Less than six months later, Marchant announced he would mount a bid for secretary of state with a focus on election integrity. At the time, he also told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that, though he did accept his 2020 election loss, there were still “some shenanigans” involved.
Today, his campaign website casts Marchant as “a victim of election fraud.” He suggested in a debate earlier this year that Nevadans’ votes have not counted for years, and alleged in a January interview with The Guardian that a global “cabal” has been manipulating voting machines for years.
Backed by prominent 2020 election denier and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Marchant has joined other secretary of state candidates who have dubbed themselves the “America First” coalition, a group that Marchant has said is working behind the scenes to fix allegedly corrupt election systems.
He has also opposed the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonpartisan voter registration database across 30 states that some conservatives have accused, without evidence, of being a front for voter fraud.
In an interview with Reuters last September, Marchant said he would look to end early voting and temporarily ban the use of voting machines so they could be examined for evidence of tampering.
More recently, Marchant has joined several other 2020 election deniers in a tour of rural county commissions, where he has called on county leaders to end the use of voting machines owned by Dominion Voting Systems — a company central to many unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2020 election — and switch to hand-counted paper ballots. At least three counties have agreed to make such a switch.
He has also often campaigned on issues unrelated to the office.
That includes touting anti-abortion stances, his support of a ban on “underage transgender treatment,” and support for an increase in the number of oil drilling leases. In tweets, he has also said that “marxism is taking over,” and tweeted a picture of what appear to be migrants with the words “this is an invasion!”
He also called a speech from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before Congress in March “a ruse,” and said he was “no different than Biden, Clinton, Obama and that cabal.”
Like the other Republican candidates, Marchant has also backed the implementation of voter identification, and on the issue of business policy, has suggested cutting or eliminating the state’s yearly business license fee.
Marchant is not the top fundraiser in the primary race, but still raised more than $43,000 in 2022 and entered the final stretch of the campaign with more than $55,000 cash on hand.
He also controls a PAC, Conservatives for Election Integrity (CEI PAC), that raised an additional $98,000, including nearly $83,500 from The America Project — a group linked to former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn that has pushed election fraud claims.
Marchant’s close connection to the PAC later prompted an election integrity complaint from one of his rival candidates.
Byrne also personally gave Marchant an additional $5,000, as did Robert Beadles, a prominent conservative activist in Northern Nevada who backed a failed proposal to overhaul Washoe County’s election administration.
Marchant’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.
A former state senator and high-profile developer in the Reno area, Jesse Haw launched his campaign in January by asserting that the GOP required a candidate in the race who could “stand up and go toe to toe with the Democrat machine.”
Haw is by far the most well-funded candidate in the field, touting more than $662,000 in an initial campaign contribution report in April. A sizable majority — $459,000— stemmed from a series of candidate loans to the campaign.
That money has translated into an advertising machine, with television spots airing statewide touting Haw’s conservative credentials and election policy stances.
Haw did not accept a request for a phone interview from The Nevada Independent, but did send written replies to questions emailed to his campaign, which included calling the permanent expansion of mail voting under AB321 a “terrible idea,” and arguing that Nevada was already “one of, if not the most accessible” jurisdictions for ease of voting in the country.
Haw, alongside the rest of the Republican field, has also campaigned against ballot collection — often referred to as “ballot harvesting” by Republican groups — which, as part of AB4 in 2020, loosened restrictions by allowing non-family members to collect absentee ballots.
Haw has called on the new policy to be made a felony offense, but did not respond to a question asking how he would pursue such a policy should Democrats retain control of the Legislature.
Like the rest of the field, Haw has touted his support for voter ID laws and said he would look to make it the first bill his office would send to lawmakers as secretary of state. He said he hopes such a bill would trigger a conversation about who has access to government ID and present an opportunity to “help people who may have not had a hand up in the past.”
Haw added that he believed such a measure would “pass overwhelmingly,” and if not, that he would seek to pass the measure through a ballot initiative.
Asked if the 2020 presidential election was legitimate, Haw said it “had a lot of shenanigans and potential fraud,” specifically citing ballot harvesting, the sending of mail ballots to the wrong or old addresses and “a complete lack of voter ID.”
“I think the Democrats used single party rule to tip the scales,” he wrote.
On the subject of business regulations and administration, Haw said small business owners need a “clearer path to doing business” in Nevada, and that existing systems need to be streamlined and updated.
“Business needs a level playing field and clear, minimal directions and influence from the government,” Haw said.
An ex-Clark County District Court judge and longtime attorney, Richard Scotti has campaigned in large part on his legal résumé.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Scotti echoed many of the Republican policy concerns over election administration in Nevada, specifically criticizing ballot collection and, more broadly, the expansion of mail voting in the 2020 election.
However, Scotti also said despite “very great concerns” about the election laws themselves and whether the procedures laid out under state law were still followed, adding that he could not say that the election was illegitimate.
Still, Scotti has also called for “fact-finding missions” on policies such as ballot collection. He also criticized a post-election investigation by Cegavske’s office into election fraud claims, saying in part that her office lacked the staffing, data, money and time to “do a thorough job.”
“You don't wait until you see fraud to take steps to stop it from happening,” Scotti said.
Scotti also said he would support an Arizona-style audit of the 2020 election results, and he praised that Arizona audit as “very fruitful.”
That audit, a partisan effort conducted by a private firm with a founder who perpetuated unfounded claims of rigged voting machines, eventually confirmed Biden’s win in Arizona, though it also sought to raise lingering claims of “irregularities.” Arizona election officials strongly disputed the findings.
Scotti also expressed support for the use of paper ballots, rather than electronic voting machines, but with the caveat that “there’s a lot more research that needs to be done” on the subject. He also criticized machines owned by Dominion, saying he had heard anecdotal allegations of failures with paper back-ups and that there were “instances where the electronic vote changed overnight.”
If Democrats retain control of either or both the governorship and the Legislature, Scotti said he would seek to file lawsuits against the governor, lawmakers and local election officials who “are engaging in conduct, passing laws or passing regulations, that are unconstitutional.”
“The secretary of state does not have to limit its behavior on what the Legislature says,” Scotti said.
On non-election policies, Scotti singled out the secretary of state’s role on the Board of Prison Commissioners as “an immense responsibility,” and said he would seek to increase access to educational programs among inmates as part of a broader effort to reduce recidivism rates.
As for business policy, Scotti said he would look to empanel a policy of experts to re-examine the SilverFlume online business portal, “because that’s the number one complaint I hear.” He also would put an increased focus on addressing business concerns in non-urban areas of Nevada.
Scotti served on the bench from 2014 to 2020, and also made headlines in 2019 when the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial in a child rape case after Scotti swore at a potential juror during jury selection and threw a pocket constitution at the wall, after that juror expressed a belief that she could not be impartial.
A longtime television news anchor, Gerard Ramalho has joined the chorus of Republican candidates sharply criticizing Democratic-backed policies on mail ballots, ballot collection and voter ID laws.
When asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent whether he believed the 2020 election was legitimate, Ramalho said instead that “our trust was stolen” by a “single-party-rule Legislature.”
Ramalho said he would work to reverse those Democratic policies if elected, and argued that election integrity broadly benefits everyone, not any single party. When asked how he would work with Democrats if they still controlled the Legislature after the election, Ramalho said he would seek to use the “bully pulpit” to advocate for his policies.
“We're gonna have to wait for another Legislature to get those things reversed and make sure that there's an appetite for it,” Ramalho said. “And I will lobby against those, as much as my capacity allows.”
On the issue of a switch to paper ballots, Ramalho said the policy “makes sense” in smaller counties, but likely would not work in the more populous counties, such as Clark County.
“I don’t think that machines are going away entirely in the future, I don’t think that’s a realistic endeavor,” he said.
Ramalho also said he opposed same-day voter registration and the use of ballot drop boxes, but said he would be “open to considering” the expansion of the early voting window and would not seek to leave ERIC, the 30-state voter registration database.
He also said he would not seek an Arizona-style audit of Nevada’s 2020 election, noting that litigating past elections “could be a potential misspending of taxpayer dollars.”
On the issue of business administration, Ramalho criticized a “lack of efficiency” and said Nevada was “lagging behind” on digital opportunities.
A Sparks city councilman, Kris Dahir has sought to differentiate his candidacy in large part by eschewing claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020 while still backing tentpole Republican election policies, such as voter ID and an end to ballot harvesting.
“I've looked through it all, I don't see the mass fraud they speak of,” Dahir said in an interview. “I do see all the questions and things that should not have been put in place because it causes confusion. But I have not seen mass voter fraud.”
Dahir said he believed the changed policy on ballot collection created “room for fraud.” He also criticized the “mass-sending” of ballots and, more broadly, the creation of vast changes to election law “that do not have the proper foundation or protocols around it.”
Dahir provided a caveat, however, that he’s not a state lawmaker. His role as secretary of state would be not to change laws, but to “help guide” changes that would minimize confusion.
He also sharply criticized the push for hand-counted paper ballots, calling it “horrible,” “short-sighted” and a policy that has “taken us back in time.”
“If anything, I think the future of voting will look more like using technology instead of people,” Dahir said. “It’s people who cheat, not computers.”
Those technologies, Dahir said, could expand to include the type of digital voting used by the military or the use of the blockchain as a means to verify voter ID — though any such technologies would be “way down the road.”
He added that the removal of Dominion machines was “creating chaos,” and openly criticized Marchant for saying he would not have certified Nevada’s 2020 election results.
“That should mean you’re not fit for office, because when you swear in as an elected officer, we swear to follow the law,” Dahir said. “We’re not here to interpret the law just how we like it.”
On the issue of voter ID, Dahir said he supported the policy as a means to “heal the relationship with voting'', and said the policy would make voters “feel more comfortable” with the process. But he also said any voter ID law would be only part of a broader policy, and would not necessarily prevent someone without a government-issued ID from voting at all.
Dahir called business issues “the main part of the job” and said he would like the state to rely more on the SilverFlume online portal to streamline business registration, rather than localizing registration city by city. He also said he would look to expand policies assisting veterans seeking to start a business.
Other Republican candidates running for secretary of state include John Cardiff Gerhardt, a one-time third party candidate for state Assembly who has also railed against the pandemic as “fake” and openly endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory; and Socorro Keenan, whose campaign website’s “news” section includes only allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election in Nevada.
The Democratic Primary
An attorney and former chair of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Cisco Aguilar is the only Democratic candidate running for secretary of state. He is also one of the most well-funded candidates in the entire field, reporting more than $561,000 cash on hand in an April campaign finance filing.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Aguilar said Cegavske “did a phenomenal job” in administering the 2020 election and “ensuring that the election was fair and transparent.”
Asked if he supported the changes made to state election law by Democrats in 2020 and 2021, Aguilar said the right to vote is “one of the most critical fundamental rights we have,” and that discussions about limiting access to the polls was tantamount to “taking those rights away.”
He also broadly defended Democratic election policies, saying they had increased participation in disenfranchised communities and criticized efforts to decertify Dominion-owned voting machines in rural counties, saying the moves would “create greater chaos” and “buyer’s remorse.”
But he also criticized the proposed extended timeline for the implementation of a “top-down” statewide voter registration system by her office, a move away from the current county-level system spurred by a 2021 law.
“For somebody coming out of the private sector … if I took four years to start launching my company, we'd be non-existent,” Aguilar said. “If you take four years to implement a process, you're going to miss the opportunity to set a standard that's for the benefit of the citizens.”
However, Aguilar did not commit, if elected, to implementing that top-down system in time for the 2024 elections, pointing to not “being in the office” and therefore not having a specific understanding of constraints on staffing or other issues.
Aguilar also criticized the business filing system as “frustrating” and called to overhaul it in part because the system “is a huge revenue generator for the state, and we need to project that revenue.”
“If you try to fix a flawed system, you’re only going to get a worse outcome,” Aguilar said.
When asked how he would work with a hypothetical Republican governor, Aguilar said he would seek “common ground,” especially about small business issues.
After former Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel dropped out of the race in February to mount a bid for state controller, Aguilar became the only Democrat who filed for secretary of state.
Also running as non-major party candidates — and as such not subject to the primary election — are Independent American Party candidate Janine Hansen and Libertarian Party candidate Ross Crane.