The Nye County Commission is used to dealing with all sorts of hot-button controversies.
Water rights, ranching rules and marijuana licensing are among the many local dramas consuming the five commissioners’ time in this vast swath of rural, deeply Republican Nevada. Last spring, it was something new: voting machines.
For months, conspiracy theories fueled on social media by those repeating lies about former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss have inflamed public suspicion about the reliability of the election results. In response, the commission put a remarkable item on its agenda: Ditch the county’s voting machines and instead count every vote on every ballot — more than 20,000 in a typical general election — entirely at the hand.
Commissioners called a parade of witnesses, including three from out of state who insisted that voting machines could be hacked and votes would be reversed without a trace. They said no county could be certain that their machines were not accessible via the internet and open to tampering by nefarious actors.
It was just too much for Sam Merlino, a Republican who has spent more than two decades administering elections as county clerk. She just felt overwhelmed.
“It just made me feel helpless,” she said in a recent interview from her office in Tonopah, a former silver mining town surrounded by hills of rock and sagebrush midway between Las Vegas and Reno.
She defended the system’s checks and balances that ensure accurate vote counts, but was bombarded with technical jargon and theories she had never heard. “I couldn’t do anything but sit and listen,” she said.
When the county commission voted unanimously to recommend hand counting the ballots — even though there was no evidence of tampering — she decided enough was enough and tendered her resignation. Merlino will step down next week and leave election administration in a county the size of New Hampshire to a new clerk; the candidate most likely to succeed him is someone who promoted conspiracy theories about voting machines and falsely claims that Trump actually won the 2020 election.
Merlino’s departure and Nye County’s plans to scrap voting machines and hand-count every ballot open a window into the real-life consequences of the unfounded conspiracy theories that have spread across the country since then. Trump’s defeat. The moves also raise questions about how local elections will play out when overseen by people skeptical of the process.
A network of people peddling conspiracy theories about the security of voting machines have crisscrossed the country for more than a year, spinning elaborate threads involving Venezuelan software, the Chinese Communist Party and offshore servers. They have tried to persuade state and local authorities to do exactly what Nye County is trying to do.
Although no state has taken the same step, their efforts are finding fertile ground in conservative parts of the United States such as Nye County, where suspicion of the government runs deep. Already this year, some rural county councils have threatened to refuse to certify the results of their primary elections, even without evidence of problems.
Nye County, the nation’s third-largest by area, stretches from strip malls on the outskirts of Las Vegas through desolate rangelands where cattle graze and the military trains pilots and practices missile firing and dropping bombs.
Conspiracy theories have long found an audience in the county. It is home to part of Area 51, the once secret US Air Force base that attracts alien enthusiasts and UFO hunters. During public comments at county commission meetings, residents point to Alex Jones of Infowars, who peddled false conspiracy theories about the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. In Pahrump, the county’s most populous town, a plaque on a park bench honors late radio host and conspiracy theorist Art Bell, who lived here until his death in 2018.
Its voters are staunchly Republicans. In 2018, they chose a Republican brothel owner over a Democrat in a race for the state house — even though the brothel owner had died weeks earlier.
Trump won Nye County by more than 40 percentage points from the 25,427 ballots cast in November 2020. That margin, however, did nothing to quell the spread of conspiracy theories about voter fraud and the tampering with ballot papers.
At a recent Republican Party event and county commission meeting, many brought up stories they had heard of QR codes, half-inserted USB drives and foreign hackers infiltrating machines made by Dominion Voting Systems.
No evidence has emerged to prove any of the theories, but they continue to spread in Nye County Facebook groups.
Merlino recalled when an error on a sample ballot exploded on social media into a full-fledged corruption conspiracy theory about the printing company’s financial ties: “Like everything, once a rumor starts or once something is out there people feed off of it,” she says.
County commissioners say they are compelled to act to restore confidence in the election, a concern that fueled their vote to recommend manual counting of ballots in the upcoming November election rather than using tabulators .
Election experts are skeptical that manual counting is feasible anywhere but the smallest counties; Nye County has approximately 31,500 registered voters. They say the potential for human error is far greater than running ballots through a tabulator and checking the results afterwards to ensure accuracy.
“It’s a very bad idea, and everyone from the most conservative to the most liberal election officials will attest to that,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit organization that works on electoral procedures.
A lengthy manual counting process could spark a political crisis in the state, an eternal presidential battleground and one of six states where Trump contested his 2020 loss. It’s unclear what would happen if just one of 17 counties in Nevada either failed to finish counting votes within the seven-day period required by state law or refused to certify the results.
The secretary of state’s office said manual counting could conflict with state law and has scheduled hearings in August to discuss regulations for any county planning to attempt it.
Supporters of the movement are fearless. At a dimly lit Mexican restaurant in Pahrump, an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, activists attending a recent Nye County ‘GOP Unity’ event attributed their support for hand counting to what they said were irregularities unexplained facts and suspicions of election tampering.
“You just don’t know 100%,” said Leo Blundo, a Nye County commissioner who voted against certifying the June primary results after losing his re-election bid.
Pahrump Republican Tina Trenner said cutting off the vote from electric sources could help assuage skepticism about the election results.
“They could be hacked. Something as simple as a phone with a hotspot, sitting on the counter, can suddenly make these machines available on the internet,” she said.
The push to count ballots by hand has also won the support of at least one prominent Nevada Republican — Jim Marchant, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, the office that oversees the election. He has participated in rallies and other events across the country to promote the lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election.
“If we go out in droves and vote, we will overwhelm the system so that all the mechanisms they have put in place to manipulate the system are undone,” he said, applauding Republicans in Pahrump, without specifying who he was. feared to manipulate the election.
Marchant repeated a promise he made to the Nye County commission months earlier, when the clerk said manually counting the ballots would require a significant number of people. Marchant told The Associated Press that he could provide as many members of his “election integrity” movement from Nevada and elsewhere as needed to help with the process.
In a stump speech, Marchant said he looked forward to working with Mark Kampf, the Republican Party primary winner in the Nye County Clerk’s race. Kampf’s platform included replacing voting machines with manual counting.
During a debate, Kampf, a corporate accountant and auditor, insisted that Trump had won the 2020 election. He told voters he was concerned that a statewide system for updating voter rolls is a ploy by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros. He warned against the misuse of ballot boxes, citing the film ‘2000 Mules’. Experts say he is using flawed analysis of cellphone data and ballot box surveillance footage to cast doubt on the 2020 election results.
Kampf, who is expected to be named to replace Merlino in August, declined to comment for this story. He told the commission at its July meeting that he planned to focus on voter education to restore confidence in the election.
That may prove a daunting task in a community that remains fascinated by Trump’s constant insistence that he was the real winner.
The extent to which distrust has taken root worries Merlino, whose own education efforts have done little to sway his neighbors.
After a rather quiet tenure, the self-proclaimed “republican of personal responsibility” said she was sickened to witness fictions and lies taking root in her county and politicizing the work of her fellow pollsters in Nevada.
Merlino’s office has been inundated with public records requests from people looking for evidence of fraud or tampering. County residents who deny the 2020 presidential election results without evidence are yelling at him and his staff as they line up to vote. The stolen election myths have even estranged her from members of her own family, including one she hasn’t spoken to in over six months.
On top of all that, the commission’s shift to manual counting convinced her it was time to step aside.
“I don’t think it can be done,” she said. “If they want to try, that’s why I give them the opportunity to do so.”
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed.
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