RENO, Nev. – As officials in some parts of rural Nevada vow to bypass voting machines in favor of hand counting ballots this November, the Nevada secretary of state’s office is proposing statewide rules that would specify how to do it, including requiring bipartisan vote counters, room for observation and how many ballots to count at a time.
On Friday, four voting rights groups came out against the proposal, calling it an “admirable attempt to ensure higher standards” for counting votes by hand, but urging the secretary of state to prohibit the practice outright, noting that the push for hand-counting stems from “unfounded speculation” about voting machines.
“The regulations are not enough to address the underlying accuracy issues and remediate the legal deficiencies of hand count processes,” the groups Brennan Center, All Voting is Local, ACLU Nevada and Silver State Voices said in a statement Friday.
Both voting rights groups and hand-count proponents spoke at an online hearing Friday, the first meeting convened to discuss the regulations. Voting rights groups lobbied to prohibit hand-counts, while voting machine skeptics, a majority of the speakers, said the proposed regulations were a power grab meant to sabotage hand-counting.
The debate over how to regulate hand-counting comes after a push for the method in some conservative rural parts of the state where election misinformation has grown.
Mark Wlaschin, deputy secretary of state for elections in Nevada, said the regulations have been in the works for nearly a year and don’t come in direct response to events in Nye County, where the county clerk responsible for administering elections resigned last month after election conspiracies led to a successful push to hand-count votes. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske is the lone elected statewide official who is a Republican.
Wlaschin said the rules would help counties that opt to switch to hand-counting systems, preventing clerks from having to draw up rules from scratch. They would also create a uniform structure so the state can ensure the counting is valid. If a county wants to switch to hand-counting, he said, “at least now it’s not going to fall on the clerk to (conduct) a year of research in developing a template of his or her own.”
Nye County is one of the first jurisdictions nationwide to act on election conspiracies related to mistrust in voting machines. Nevada’s least populous county, Esmeralda, used hand-counting to certify June’s primary results, when officials spent more than seven hours counting 317 ballots cast.
Proponents of hand-counting have described the old-fashioned method as a way to address distrust in elections, especially unproven claims that voting machines are prone to hacking and are untrustworthy. Experts say hand-counting is not only far more time consuming but opens the process to more errors.
At the center of the push is Mark Kampf, the new interim Nye County clerk who has repeated the lie that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. He wrote the framework of a new vote-counting plan that would transform elections in his rural county with the help of Jim Marchant, a Republican secretary of state candidate and leader of the “America First” coalition of candidates who deny the validity of the 2020 election results. At a February candidates forum, Marchant told a crowd “Your vote hasn’t counted for decades.”
In an interview during his first full day in office Monday, Kampf declined to discuss his belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, saying his views about that election are not relevant to his new job. Instead, he outlined his plan for paper ballots that are the exact same as current mail-in ballots, in-person signature verification and a camera livestream set up alongside poll watchers so others can see the voting process as well.
Alongside the hand-count will be a parallel tabulating process that uses the same machines currently used to count mail-in ballots.
Kampf said at that time that he agreed with some of the state’s proposed hand-counting rules, but on Friday he urged officials to scrap the regulations, parts of which he said create an “incredible undue burden.”
Kampf was among many who exceeded the two-minute limit, speaking for over 30 minutes. He said Nye County should be exempt from the regulations because of its plan for a parallel voting tabulation process.
Wlaschin asked if the parallel voting process would be phased out in favor of solely counting votes by hand.
Kampf, who was appointed as interim clerk and is on the ballot for a four-year term, answered: “Like in any system transition process, if it doesn’t work — and I fully anticipate that we can get it to work — and I hope we can prove to you and to those who are doubting and have significant doubts that it can work, that you’d make that decision at that point in time."
Absent from the regulations is any enforcement if a county fails to follow the rules. Part of ensuring compliance falls on the secretary of state’s office, Wlaschin said, and part of that falls on the county clerks.
Nearly every other Nevada county plans to stick with machine counting.
Humboldt County Clerk Tami Rae Spero read the hand-count regulations and thought of what resources that would take in her rural county of about 17,000.
The teams of four and table spacing requirements would help a hand-count run smoothly, but she wondered where would she find the needed space and bipartisan personnel.
“Let’s just hope we don’t actually ever have to,” she said.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Stern on Twitter @gabestern326.