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How should Nevada hand count ballots? Nye County, state election officials disagree

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Elections
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As Nye County’s top new election official prepares to hand count tens of thousands of paper ballots cast in this year’s general election, the secretary of state’s office is seeking to standardize and regulate that process. 

But the two sides are at odds.

Last week, the secretary of state’s office hosted a workshop to solicit feedback on a proposed temporary regulation for hand counting that would require local election officials to follow certain procedures for tallying votes, submit plans for meeting numerous election deadlines and ensure hand-counting teams are not all of the same political party.

“We strongly urge the secretary of state to not adopt these regulations,” Mark Kampf, who started as Nye County’s interim clerk earlier this month, said during the workshop.

Kampf, who is running for a full four-year term as clerk, expressed concerns over several portions of the regulation, including calling for tally forms to be prescribed by the secretary of state rather than the county official, as well as another that would require clerks to report the use of any outside vendors hired to assist with the hand count. Instead, he touted his own plan — a “parallel tabulation” process that would involve running ballots through the typical mechanical tabulators at the same time as hand counting all ballots.

“Nye County is going to be the guinea pig here, let's be realistic about this,” he said. “[M]y goal is to develop a process that can be used throughout Nevada and throughout any other state.”

Mark Wlaschin, the deputy secretary of state for elections who oversaw the workshop last week, said the regulation was necessary to standardize methods of hand counting ballots.

“Until this regulation, there was no identification of the cost to the voters. There's no clarification on the process, or the locations or how it would work or contingency planning,” he said.

Recent hand counts in Nevada have not been conducted uniformly. In June, a pair of Esmeralda County commissioners, along with several county election workers, spent more than seven hours hand counting 317 ballots before certifying the results of the primary hours before the canvassing deadline. Earlier in the year, Republican commissioners in both Nye and Esmeralda counties accepted a pitch from Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, to ask their county clerks to move to hand counting and stop using electronic voting machines for the general election.

Lander County election officials also hand counted the results of six races across fewer than 1,500 ballots cast in the June primary.

But those jurisdictions are home to far fewer people than Nye County, which has more than 32,000 registered voters. During the meeting last week, Wlaschin said the average number of registered voters in jurisdictions across the country that solely hand count ballots is typically fewer than 800.

With a significantly more populous Nevada jurisdiction, Nye County, set to hand count votes this year, Wlaschin said his office spent the last year conducting research to develop the regulation and learning best practices from other jurisdictions, namely Arizona, Idaho, Kansas and New Hampshire. 

Despite those efforts, the regulation was met with significant pushback and wide-ranging questions from voter advocacy groups to concerned Republican voters.

All Voting is Local, a nonpartisan advocacy group, joined with the ACLU of Nevada, Brennan Center of Justice and Silver State Voices to write a letter to the secretary of state’s office denouncing hand counting as the “primary method of counting … and determining the results of an election.” They pointed to issues with human error that could affect the accuracy of a hand count, citing studies on higher error rates that occur while counting by hand. Generally, a person might make a mistake while repeatedly tallying scores of votes from ballots marked in different ways.

With Kampf’s plans for a parallel tabulation and his obligation to adhere to any regulation approved at the state level, no Nevada county yet appears on track to rely entirely on hand counting for election results this year.

State law generally provides for the counting of ballots using mechanical devices, though no state law prohibits counting by hand. Instead, the secretary of state has the discretion to adopt regulations for “establishing uniform, statewide standards for counting.” 

Generally, the country has moved away from hand counting as a time-consuming and error-prone method. A state history published by the secretary of state notes that by 1985, “not one county in Nevada was using paper ballots,” and votes were counted by some form of mechanical device.

The Conservatives for Election Integrity PAC, a group aligned with Marchant, also panned the regulation, tying the measure to Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a press release preceding the workshop.

“These proposed changes are a clear attempt to eliminate any chance to have a fair and transparent vote count or a conclusive resolution to the Newsome (sic) /Sisolak centralized control over our local and state elections,” the group stated.

Wlaschin addressed those concerns specifically, saying “California did not provide any information,” while noting that California does not conduct hand counts.

Wlaschin also spent much of the two-hour workshop responding to concerns and suggestions from various public commenters.

Tracey Thomas suggested a tweak to how the tally marks are written down to avoid a situation in which she “could see those lines leading into the next group of lines.”

Alida Benson, speaking on behalf of the Nevada Republican Party, raised an issue with limiting election workers to counting only batches of 20 ballots at a time. Wlaschin said that number was a best practice his office had heard from others across the country, and the small number is meant to make the process more manageable, especially if any discrepancies in the count arise. But even Kampf said he envisioned a process with 50 ballots per batch and three tally clerks, rather than two proposed by the regulation.

Following the workshop, the secretary of state’s office is now in the process of incorporating feedback from the public and tinkering with the regulation ahead of formal adoption.

The adoption hearing for the regulation is scheduled for Aug. 26, and if approved, the measure would take effect Sept. 30 and expire on Nov. 1, 2023.

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