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This excrement again

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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Say what you will about Washoe County commissioner Jeanne Herman — and I’m about to — but she is certainly a woman of deep convictions.

It is a rare and remarkable sort of person who will vote against their own reelection. Yet that is precisely what Herman did, making her the lone vote of dissent against what was an otherwise routine ministerial motion to canvass the election results in Washoe County — a ministerial motion, incidentally, which is statutorily required to pass.

The reason a canvass is required to pass is because, when county election officials deliver the election results to their county commission, county commissioners aren’t being asked to accept their county’s election results. They’re being served their county’s election results, the same way a lawyer serves someone a court summons to someone they’re about to prosecute or sue. Otherwise, if county commissioners could vote against canvassing election results, they could vote against being voted out of office.

Again, however, I would like to reiterate that Jeanne Herman was not voted out of office. She was elected to represent her constituents for one more term. Whether her election’s returns are canvassed or not, she will remain in office regardless. Given that her vote couldn’t have been some harebrained attempt to subvert the will of the voters — well, at least not the will of her constituents, anyway — it’s perhaps important to ask what she may have been trying to accomplish instead.

***

To arrive at an answer, we must first discuss the history and role of political parties in Nevada.

As brands, political parties in Nevada are supremely important. Nonpartisan and minor party candidates seldom win even the most inconsequential of partisan elections in Nevada. As organizations, however — as I explained after Democratic Socialist-aligned activists gained control over the Nevada State Democratic Party — state and county political parties are functionally vestigial organs in Nevada’s body politic.

Before 1960, political parties were both directly responsible for candidate selection and directly responsible for deciding how those selections would occur. A hierarchical pyramid of national, state, county, and local “party bosses,” along with some horse trading in “smoke-filled rooms,” ultimately decided who was permitted to run under their party’s banner. Though this process was notoriously undemocratic, the resulting political machines had considerable value at a time when candidates had little direct access to voters and vice-versa. Voters received information about each candidate from more knowledgeable individuals higher up the party hierarchy. In return, those higher up the hierarchy received valuable information from the voters about the issues important to them during each election cycle, information which party officials could relay to interested candidates.

Then radio and television happened.

Suddenly the faces and voices of candidates could be streamed wirelessly (albeit initially at a very low resolution and only in monochrome) to their constituents' living rooms. This gave candidates a chance to work around the notoriously transactional party bosses of the era — instead of having their message to voters relayed through a series of nakedly self-interested mediators, they could simply turn on a camera and explain themselves directly. Voters, meanwhile, appreciated the opportunity to hear from candidates directly instead of having to hear about them through a bunch of barely accountable “party bosses” with their own agendas.

Consequently, during Nevada’s sole even-yeared annual session in 1960 (voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 1958 which required the Legislature to meet annually; that amendment was reverted in 1960), the Legislature began to regulate both the candidate selection process and political parties more generally. First, the Legislature required candidates for partisan public office to be selected via a primary election instead of whatever internal processes political parties chose to exercise. Next, the Legislature defined the governance of major political parties — it defined the existence and role of county and state central committees, how officials in each body were to be selected, how many delegates needed to be selected for each county and state convention, and so on.

In theory, county and state political parties remained responsible for adopting party platforms. In practice, since county and state political parties had little direct control over candidate selection, they had no control over how closely any candidate adhered to the platforms they adopted. Additionally, the adoption and spread of political action committees gave issue- and affinity-driven supporters the ability to deliver election messaging directly to candidates and voters without having to mediate their message through hundreds of county and state party delegates.

That’s why nobody actually needs to work with county and state political parties anymore — not in Nevada, at least. These vestigial organizations can add value, if they choose to and have the ability to, by assisting with fundraising and organizing volunteers, but they’re neither obligated to nor particularly well equipped to. Most volunteers and donors are frankly better served by donating their time and money either to their preferred candidates directly or to their preferred interest group anyway. That might help explain why the Legislature decided during the last session to roll back the governance reforms applied to political parties in 1960 and subsequent sessions — political parties, as state and local organizations, are simply too unimportant to bother regulating anymore.

The reason for this history lesson is two-fold: 

Firstly, anyone with actual skills, leadership ability, or organizational acumen — anyone with options, in other words — will direct their time, attention and money towards effective political institutions candidates and voters actually listen to, not toothless and pointless county and state political parties. This means the only people left who spend the majority of their time and attention on county and state political parties are, at best, well-meaning amateurs and, at worst, clueless hacks.

Secondly, many of the clueless hacks who show up to county and state political party meetings, who spend their time and energy organizing to take over the leadership of these vestigial organizations, sincerely believe they’re taking over the “smoke-filled rooms” that run local and state politics. In truth, the only material control these organizations can exercise is over their seldom-visited social media accounts and oft-deleted email lists — and, speaking as a former county and state political party official, those are a dime a dozen and barely worth the hosting fees.

***

The 1960 Legislature also defined some transparency requirements for voting machines:

A selection of SB67 from the 1960 Session, which required county clerks to notify the chairmen of county central committees of the time and place where voting machines would be prepared.

We’ll come back to those voting machines in a bit.

***

Republican candidates won half of the state’s constitutional offices, including both the most (governor) and least-powerful (lieutenant governor) offices, for the first time in nearly a decade. Former Republican county assessor Mike Clark, who had a protective order applied against him after he sent a mass mailing featuring a photo of another county official in a swimsuit, not only unseated an incumbent Republican county commissioner, he won the general election as well. One of the candidates featured on SaveWCSD, a now-defunct far-right website, was elected to the Washoe County school board. The only county-wide office won by a Democrat, County Recorder, was won because no other candidates challenged incumbent Kalie Work. Every other countywide office was won by a Republican.

It was, then, by any objective standard, a decently positive election result for Washoe County Republicans, especially for a county that has grown increasingly swingy over the past decade or two.

Instead of celebrating some hard-fought victories and learning some lessons from the few defeats they suffered, however, Washoe County Republicans chose to spend their energy demanding a do-over. According to a recent email blast they sent out, the county party wants the Secretary of State’s office to conduct an audit of every ballot in Washoe County — and, if there’s greater than a 1 percent error rate in the resulting count, the Washoe County Republican Party not only demands a new election, they demand that the election take place during one day in December at a single polling location, use hand-counted paper ballots, and report the results on the same day.

It’s tempting to ignore the forest for the trees and pick apart the county party’s “demands” — and I am not above succumbing to temptation.

To start with, registered voters may file written statements contesting election results, but, per NRS 293.407, written statements must be filed in triplicate, not via website form submission. Additionally, per NRS 293.420, election contests are settled in court — and if the person who contests the election loses, they pay everyone’s court costs. 

A 1 percent error rate, meanwhile, wouldn’t be large enough to change a single election outcome in Washoe County this year. The closest race, between Meghan Ebert and Bonnie Weber, was won with a 1.18 percent margin. 

The demand for a special election in December with only one polling place using hand-counted paper ballots, meanwhile, suffers from a litany of fatal flaws. For starters, it would be grossly unfair to the very same voters in Vya (a small hamlet in the upper-northwest corner of Nevada) Jeanne Herman sought to draw attention to in November when some of their mail ballots weren’t delivered correctly. Vya is hundreds of miles from Reno, only accessible by gravel road, and notoriously unsafe to travel through during winter. Is that the most serious logistical issue with their proposed remedy? Well, no — take your pick from the impossibility of counting up to 200,000 ballots by hand in a single evening (it took volunteers three hours to count fifty ballots by hand in Pahrump), the unfairness of letting Washoe County voters examine the state’s election results and then get a do-over a month later, and the Reno-Sparks Convention Center’s inability to support hundreds of thousands of voters in one day are all more fatal than the accessibility of elections for a couple dozen ranchers. 

But it’s as good a place to start as any. At the very least, it demonstrates the depth (the nadir?) of Washoe County Republican’s thoughtfulness and support for Herman’s hermits.

Yet, despite her party demanding the Secretary of State disenfranchise many of Herman’s voters, Herman continues to solicit support from a group she doesn’t even need anymore — having served on the county commission for eight years already, this term will be last. Consequently, we must assume she’s sincere in her support for the election denialism being peddled by her county party.

The problem, in the mind of Herman and the Washoe County Republican Party, is that the machines counting our ballots can’t be trusted. According to her, if we simply go back to hand-counted paper ballots — oh, and deploy the entirety of the state’s National Guard in Washoe County to oversee each and every precinct in the county — we’ll finally have the Republican form of government promised in Article 4, Section 4 of our great nation’s Constitution.

The complaints raised by her and her allies, however, are lazily ahistorical — and no, I’m not talking about the strawman that Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution guarantees Republican electoral victories (“a Republican Form of Government”) despite the Constitution being written 65 years prior to the founding of the Republican Party. Even Herman isn’t that daft. 

No, I’m talking about how Washoe County has been using election machines, with bipartisan support, since 1956 and for good reason — using voting machines produces far less expensive and far more accurate elections than hand counts, a truth which was easily identifiable in 1955. Nevada, in fact, first legalized the use of election machines in 1951 after a particularly contentious and slow hand count in 1950 — a hand count, incidentally, which involved fewer than 22,000 votes in Washoe County, or slightly more than a tenth of the number of ballots cast in Washoe County in the most recent election. Since then, Nevada’s population increased from roughly 160,000 to nearly 3,200,000 — a twenty-fold increase. Additionally, everyone with expert-level experience and expertise with hand count elections is seven decades older than they were when they were struggling to count 22,000 votes by hand.

That’s a polite way of saying they’re all dead. Even Jeanne Herman, age 82, isn’t that old. In fact, Herman, who was born in 1940 (give or take a year) wasn’t even old enough to vote when Washoe County ordered its first election machines.

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate why a millionaire who built his future on cryptocurrency would be suspicious of computers, especially if he’s spending more time reading antisemitic propaganda than newspaper clippings written decades before his birth. If my source of wealth was built on a well-timed exit from an energy and graphics card-burning Ponzi scheme, I’d be suspicious of everything around me, too. 

I can also appreciate why amateur county-level party officials might try to pander to him — fundraising is hard, especially when nobody knows why your organization still exists anymore. If someone’s dumb enough to invest in crypto, well, maybe they’re enough of a mark to give money to the county party, too. It’s certainly worth a shot.

What I don’t understand is why a term limited county commissioner would play along with any of this — unless, of course, she sincerely believes this nonsense herself.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne, on Mastodon @[email protected], or email him at [email protected]

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