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Nye commissioners ask top county election official for all paper ballots, hand-counting

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
ElectionsLocal Government
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A photo of the sign next to the road entering Nye County.

Nye County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend the county clerk ditch electronic voting machines and move to all-paper, hand-counted elections for both the 2022 primary and general elections. 

But facing some pushback from Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino, those changes may not be enacted in full. Merlino said she is required by law to have one electronic voting machine at each polling location to ensure the county’s elections comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Merlino, who did not oppose the measure outright, also cautioned that her office does not have the resources to make such major administrative changes with just weeks left before the first mail ballots are sent out for the June primary election.

The vote came after testimony from several prominent 2020 election deniers and conspiracy theorists who alleged — citing debunked evidence — that electronic machines used in Nevada, including Nye County, are vulnerable to cyber attacks that could change the outcome of an election. 

It is also the latest attempt by a rural Nevada county to greatly overhaul election administration in response to unproven conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. 

“With the paper ballots, hand-counted at the precinct level, decentralized — we're going against what the forces want,” Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, told the board. “They want centralized [systems] so they can manipulate it. So if we go against that and get back to decentralized … that's how we're going to guarantee that we have a fair and transparent election.”

The final effects of the vote — which requested but did not order that Merlino make the changes — remain unclear. The position of Nye County clerk is elected and not appointed, meaning jurisdictional issues prevent the county commission from ordering the clerk’s office to take a specific course of action.

Though Merlino said she would look into making the changes for the 2022 general election, she pointed to serious logistical challenges that would likely prevent a sweeping shift to all-paper elections and hand-counting during the primary election.

“With this ballot, or paper shortage, my ballots are ordered… I do not know if I can get more,” Merlino said. “There's no way right now for me to gauge how many people are going to show up in person, so I will probably have to order an additional 20,000 ballots to have at the polls, even though we're sending out 31,000.”

A switch to hand-counting all ballots would also come with a high cost. The time-consuming process is often mired by human error but has gained widespread attention and support amid false narratives about the security of electronic vote tabulators.

“If you have an issue with the hand count, if we're off and we have to hand count again and again, you just have to think about the cost of doing a hand count more than once and also the impact it has on the voters of Nye County,” Merlino said.

Republican Commissioner Debra Strickland’s original request for the agenda item on the issue points to “concerns about the integrity of the voting process” raised by many Nye County citizens and states that it “will help reassure voters that their voice is heard, and their votes are accurately recorded.” 

In November 2020, nearly 70 percent of Nye County voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump for President, a significantly larger percentage than the share of voters registered as Republicans in the county that month (48 percent).

Strickland told The Nevada Independent in an interview Monday that the proposal would eliminate the use of the county’s Dominion Voting Systems electronic machines during the elections, if accepted by Merlino.

Dominion, which provides electronic voting machines to 15 Nevada counties, has been subject to widespread and fantastical allegations of fraud since the 2020 election, though the company has fought those claims through defamation lawsuits.

Merlino said she will ensure there is one electronic Dominion voting system at each location for voters with disabilities because she does “not have the means to provide ADA compliant voting” otherwise. 

The proposed election changes also directly cite a report on voting systems in Mesa County, Colorado, alleging election violations were caused by the county’s electronic voting machines, though the findings have been debunked by state election officials. The report was prepared by Doug Gould, a cybersecurity expert affiliated with MyPillow CEO and prominent election denier Mike Lindell, and supported by Tina Peters, the Colorado county’s former election clerk, who was recently indicted on charges related to a breach of election security.

Strickland said Monday that she brought the item forward after hearing a four hour-long presentation on election integrity during a meeting of the Nye County Republican Central Committee. The commissioner said she was concerned after hearing the electronic election machines could be hacked, and said the county would be better off using paper ballots that are entirely counted by hand.

Her concerns were echoed throughout a 45 minute-long presentation delivered by a series of election conspiracy theorists, including Marchant, who argued that the Dominion voting machines are easily hackable, but presented no evidence of fraud during the 2020 election and no evidence specific to Nevada.

Marchant, a former one-term assemblyman, earlier this year touted his membership in a “coalition of America First” secretary of state candidates working “behind the scenes to try to fix 2020 like President Trump said.”

The speakers also included retired army colonel Phil Waldron, who contributed to a PowerPoint circulated ahead of Jan. 6 that proposed challenging the results of the 2020 election — in part by declaring a national emergency and seizing paper ballots — and who said he briefed White House officials multiple times in the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Waldron has also backed unfounded election conspiracies, including claims that the election was hacked by a host of actors, including China and billionaire George Soros.  

Waldron argued that a better election system would involve precinct-level voting using only paper ballots that include anti-counterfeit measures, such as a rare earth mineral sensor, and a QR code. He said election officials could then take pictures of the front and back of each ballot and upload them by precinct to the county website to allow anyone to audit the election, “so Mrs. Jones’ fifth grade class can do an audit of their precinct if they choose to.”

Two more speakers, election denial activist Mark Cook and Russell Ramsland Jr., a Republican businessman who for years made baseless claims of large-scale vote manipulation, presented a more technical picture to the board, saying election systems were easily hacked by outside actors because Dominion machines and voter rolls were connected to the internet when they were not supposed to be. 

However, neither cited evidence of such security lapses specific to Nevada or the county, and Merlino, the county clerk, later clarified to the board that at no point were Nye’s voting machines connected to the internet. 

Though it mirrors a wider push by local Republican politicians to move away from electronic voting machines — including a proposal to switch to all paper ballots in Lander County — the request falls short of more wide-reaching election changes proposed elsewhere. 

That includes an idea in Washoe County that, in addition to so-called “stealth” paper ballots, would also have sought to station National Guard troops at polling places and ballot boxes. That proposal was shelved days after it was proposed, however, on the advice of the county district attorney amid concerns the measure had not received a proper legal review. The proposal is expected to appear on a future county commission meeting agenda.

Lyon County commissioners soon could also be considering similar election changes to those proposed in Nye County. Though no similar items appear on the agenda for the county commission’s Thursday meeting, Strickland said she believed Lyon County would be doing the “same thing” on March 17.

The push to overhaul elections in several Nevada counties comes in spite of messaging from Republican U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, a prominent proponent of conspiracy theories regarding the 2020 election. Speaking to voters in Humboldt and Elko counties, Laxalt said elections in those rural counties are legitimate, while the problems with Nevada’s elections are concentrated in populous Clark County, NBC News reported.

Nationwide, Republican lawmakers in at least six states have introduced legislation that would require all election ballots to be counted by hand instead of machine, according to the Associated Press.

Heading into the 2022 election, The Nevada Independent has compiled positions taken by state and federal Republican candidates on the election results, election integrity or the 2020 election. Read more here.

Update: 3/15/22 at 5:22 p.m. - This story was updated to include new details from Tuesday's meeting, including the outcome of the vote and quotes from the parties involved.

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