In deep-red rural Nevada, longtime election officials are fighting back against a right-wing conspiracy-fueled push to turn back the clock on elections and return to hand counting paper ballots.
For some, the fight is paying off.
For others, pleas have fallen on unsympathetic ears.
Since the fall of 2021, seven of Nevada’s 17 counties have considered either switching away from the Dominion electronic voting machines, which have come under fire from election deniers following the 2020 election, or eliminating electronic voting systems altogether in favor of paper ballots and hand counting, a move that local election officials argue would only create more distrust, uncertainty and delays in the election processes.
Two counties, Nye and Esmeralda, are moving forward with the latter and asking their clerks to conduct the 2022 elections using paper ballots and hand counting the results, a move that was presented to the commissioners by Jim Marchant, a former Republican assemblyman now running for Nevada secretary of state, who has been peddling debunked voter fraud claims since losing a bid for Congress in 2020.
The decision blindsided longtime Nye County Clerk Sam Merlino, a Republican and the county’s top election official since 2000.
“I literally wanted to resign that day. After doing it for so long, you’d think people would have a little trust in you,” Merlino told the Review-Journal in a recent interview.
“We expected that after 2020 people would say that clerks and election officials did a great job, that they got us through the pandemic and the elections. But we never heard that. Immediately they said everything was fraudulent,” Merlino said. “Now you don’t feel like anyone respects the office anymore.”
Merlino isn’t alone. The disinformation campaign against voting systems in Nevada is taking its toll on election officials across the state.
“I thought this was ridiculous from day one. I thought that it would pass. When someone loses an election, it’s a good excuse to blame something, and that’s what happened. But it’s taken on a life of its own,” Lyon County Clerk Nikki Bryan said.
“I’m a Republican, but I just don’t buy into that garbage,” added Bryan, who chose not to run for re-election as clerk-treasurer after more than two decades in the role.
Merlino and Bryan and their clerk counterparts across the state have spoken out publicly in meetings to defend the accuracy of the 2020 elections and voice their concerns with their counties considering moves to go back to hand counting paper ballots.
Nye and Esmeralda are the only two counties that have voted in favor of moving to hand counting so far. Other rural counties, including Lyon, Lincoln and Elko, tabled the discussions after briefly considering them. Lander County decided last fall to switch from Dominion machines, which are used in 15 other Nevada counties, to ES&S Equipment, the other voting machine vendor that is approved by the state and has been used by Carson City.
Merlino is not running for re-election and initially planned to retire in December 2021. But after Nevada’s redrawing of legislative and congressional districts happened much later than it normally would because of the pandemic, she didn’t feel right leaving her staff in such a precarious situation and told the commissioners she would fulfill her term through the 2022 election cycle.
That all changed in March when the county commissioners told her they would be formally asking her to conduct the 2022 elections using hand-counted paper ballots.
The notice came days before the meeting. She didn’t know who would be arguing in favor of the move or what specific arguments they would make so that she could prepare her own counterpoints.
Merlino informed commissioners that she would resign in early August, staying only long enough for the office to work through a routine systems check with the secretary of state’s office.
“We can only be pushed so far,” she said.
None of the proposed changes could take effect before the June 14 primary election, however. The earliest a switch to paper ballots could take place would be in November. And county commissioners cannot force the elected clerks to stop using electronic machines and switch to paper ballots; they are only allowed to recommend or request that they do so.
Push from election deniers
In an interview, Marchant, 65, said he doesn’t trust electronic voting machines based on his background — he previously owned technology companies — saying that gives him more insight into the voting machines than the clerks and their staff who work directly with the machines. He claims that hand counting is the only accurate way to tally the votes.
But the clerks said that Marchant’s claims, which are also being pushed in other states by far-right election deniers, are wildly wrong.
The voting machines are not connected to the internet and do not use Wi-Fi, making it extremely unlikely that they could be hacked, Bryan said.
There are also several additional safeguards in place, Bryan added. The equipment requires both a fingerprint and a password for workers to access, and the machines are tested before and after each election.
The Dominion voting machines all produce a secondary paper ballot that is printed and can be reviewed by the voter to ensure its accuracy before they cast their vote.
Bryan said Lyon is also required to audit four random machines after the election. Those audits include taking the paper rolls out of the machines and hand counting the totals to make sure the machine counted everything correctly. Those audits have always shown that the machines were accurate, she added.
Elko County Clerk Kris Jakeman, who worked in the clerk’s office for nearly two decades before she was elected as the county’s top election official in 2018, echoed those comments. She said Elko, like other counties, has worked with Dominion dating to the mid-2000s when the company was called Sequoia.
“We have a great partnership with Dominion. We have never found any errors or instances of discrepancies with the machines as long as I’ve worked here,” she said.
Jakeman, a Republican as well, also pushed back on the notion that hand counting would somehow be more accurate than the machine tally, because hand counting would be rife with human error, a point that Merlino and Bryan also noted.
“People get tired. They get distracted. They may have a bias. Machines don’t,” Jakeman said.
One of Marchant’s Republican primary opponents in the secretary of state race, Sparks Councilman Kristopher Dahir, has been critical of Marchant’s push in the rural counties.
Voting and counting machines, Dahir said, have helped to eliminate issues with hand counting of paper ballots that election officials in the past had to deal with. Dahir called Marchant’s push short-sighted and said it would only “create more chaos and not help anything.”
“We don’t need to go to the dark ages in order to vote,” Dahir told the Review-Journal.
Installed by ‘deep state cabal’
Marchant himself is no stranger to the conspiracy theory world.
He claims voter fraud led to his loss to Democratic incumbent Rep. Steven Horsford in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District by more than 16,000 votes in 2020. A Clark County District Court judge rejected a Marchant lawsuit seeking a new election in the district.
He dismisses the fact that election officials from both parties at state and local levels, including Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, have said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
And of the judges across Nevada who have thrown out virtually every legal challenge to the 2020 election, Marchant also said he does not “trust hardly any part of the judicial system.”
Asked if there are any parts of America’s democracy that he does trust, Marchant said, “Good question. Not a whole lot.”
On a “Flyover Conservatives” podcast in January, Marchant said Nevada “hasn’t elected anybody since 2006. They have been installed by the deep state cabal.”
Last October, Marchant was one of the featured speakers at the QAnon-linked Patriot Double Down event in Las Vegas. One of the core parts of QAnon, which started on the fringes of the internet in 2017 but has crept into mainstream right-wing politics, is a belief that a secret cabal of elites controls the “deep state” government.
For his so-called proof of fraud and tampering in the 2020 election, Marchant has pointed to Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters in Colorado, who has pushed unfounded claims that the voting machines could be manipulated and ballots could be counted more than once.
Peters was indicted by a grand jury in Colorado in March on 10 charges relating to a security breach of the county’s election system in 2021 that led to a public release of sensitive information.
The allegations led to a Colorado judge ruling that Peters, who is also running for Colorado secretary of state, cannot supervise the primary or midterm elections in that county this year, The Associated Press reported. And the Mesa County district attorney’s office this past week presented a report that showed that there was “extensive evidence” that Peters’ claims were false.
“When you align yourself with a clerk who has been indicted by a grand jury — and a grand jury is not a political entity at all — and when a grand jury indicts you for seven felonies and three misdemeanors, there’s a problem,” said Bryan, the Lyon County clerk.
Other problems with hand counting
Merlino put together a summary of what hand counting paper ballots would look like in real time. Each ballot would take approximately five minutes for election workers to review and tally by hand.
In Esmeralda County, where there are just 615 registered active voters, hand counting might be doable. But in other, more populated rural counties, those logistics get much more complicated.
Based on her estimates for turnout in the 2022 general election for Nye County and its roughly 31,000 registered voters, Merlino estimated it would take 40 workers, each working eight-hour days, roughly 16 days to count the votes.
She said that would create a “distinct possibility” that the count would not be complete in time for the votes to be canvassed within 10 days of the election as state law requires.
There is also a looming paper shortage that could make the logistics of moving to paper ballots nearly impossible.
And the clerks have also raised issues about potentially being sued for prematurely ending their contracts with Dominion.
Eliminating voting machines entirely could also violate requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, leading to even more lawsuits.
And the state could look to claw back the money it allocated to the counties in 2017 to pay for the transition to the new Dominion machines, an idea that was brought up last month by longtime state Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas.
Nye County, for example, received $217,000 from the state to make the transition.
“When the counties came and asked for help, we helped them. And now they’ve decided they don’t want that. I believe those funds need to be returned to the state if they’re not going to be used,” Carlton told the Review-Journal in a recent interview.
Sowing more distrust
Several groups have also come to the defense of the voting machines and systems in the state, including voting rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and former Republican Gov. Bob List, who has represented Dominion for 10 years as a consultant.
“I was a Trump supporter, and I would like to have seen him win. But I also know that it was not the fault of the machines,” List told the Elko County Commission in April.
Those arguments seem to have persuaded enough of the commissioners to table some of those discussions, with the county commissions in Lyon, Elko and Lincoln all dropping the proposals before even voting on them. In Washoe County, the commission voted 4-1 in March to reject a similar proposal to eliminate electronic machines and move to paper ballots, an effort that Marchant was not involved with.
But the damage may already be done.
Bryan, Merlino and Jakeman each said that the push to discredit the current voting systems is only creating more distrust, both among the public and even among elected officials. And it’s only becoming harder to break through that disinformation, they said.
“They don’t believe what we are saying,” said Bryan. “They are so — and I’ll just call it what it is — brainwashed.”
Bryan and Merlino had already decided against running for re-election. Jakeman, in Elko, said choosing to run for re-election was a difficult decision but she decided to do so after encouragement from her staff.
Bryan said she’s worried about future elections. Her office regularly gets calls from people yelling at them about the elections before hanging up. And she wonders how long this anger can continue before it erupts into violence.
She said she is still hoping for the best, though, and knows that things will be done correctly by her and her staff.
Whether those who already doubt the elections will trust the results is another question.
“That’s what is so frustrating. My whole career I’ve tried to help people fix their problems,” Bryan said. “I just can’t fix this.”