RENO, Nev. – A rural county in Nevada where conspiracy theories about voting machines run deep is planning to start hand-counting its mail-in ballots two weeks before Election Day, a process that risks public release of early voting results.
Several voting and civil rights groups said Monday they objected to the proposal and will consider legal action if Nye County pushes ahead with its plan.
Nevada is one of 10 states that allow local election offices to begin tabulating ballots before Election Day, but the machines that typically do that are programmed not to release results. Nye County officials are planning a full hand-count in addition to a primary machine tabulation for the November election. The move was prompted by unfounded claims of fraud involving voting machines in the 2020 presidential election.
Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf said hand-count teams will start tallying mail-in ballots on Oct. 26, just under two weeks ahead of Election Day.
Hand-count tallies are done publicly for transparency, with observers in the room. That raises the possibility that someone keeping score could make early results from the count public before most voters have even cast their ballot, voting experts said.
“When you are releasing results early, there is the potential for manipulative release, intended to try to impact turnout,” said Gowri Ramachandran, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which wrote a letter objecting to Nye County’s plan.
Results that change over time also sow distrust of the process.
“You can cause people to be confused about whether results are accurate,” she said.
The Brennan Center and ACLU of Nevada say making any results public before voting ends on Election Day violates state law. Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU’s Nevada chapter, said Monday that a lawsuit against the county "might be coming sooner rather than later.”
The Nye County commission has been pushing ahead with its plan to adopt a hand count of all ballots along with the primary machine tally for the Nov. 3 general election, a decision fueled by unfounded conspiracy theories about its Dominion voting system.
Kampf said he did not share the same concerns as the voting groups about the early release of partial results.
“They’re only going to get a small piece of the result, and so no one sees the total result in any place,” he said in a brief interview Monday.
Nye County Commissioner Debra Strickland said Kampf has the commission’s support because he “has decided to do as we’ve requested.”
Nye County originally was going to start hand-counting both mail ballots and early in-person ballots on Oct. 25, but scrapped that plan after realizing it violated a Nevada statute that says counting early in-person ballots cannot begin until Election Day.
Mark Wlaschin, Nevada’s deputy secretary of state for elections, said he has been in touch with Kampf about the county's plans. Asked about concerns that the early hand-count of mail ballots could lead to results being released before Election Day, Wlaschin said it was a “good consideration” and he would bring it up with Kampf.
Under Nye County’s plan, hand-count teams of five will include a reader who announces each result, a verifier who looks over the reader’s shoulder and three talliers who write down the results. The talliers then compare their results before submitting them. They count in batches of 50 ballots and public observers are allowed in.
Hand-counting is mostly used in small townships across New England and rural Wisconsin. There are 658 jurisdictions in the continental U.S. that rely exclusively on hand-counting, with the vast majority having fewer than 2,000 registered voters, according to data from Verified Voting, a group that tracks voting equipment across states.
The most populous county in the continental U.S. to use only hand-counting is Owyhee County, Idaho, which had 6,315 registered voters as of 2020. Nye County has over 33,000 registered voters, raising questions about whether a full hand count can be completed before the state deadline to certify the election results.
Nevada’s least populous county, Esmeralda, used hand-counting to certify June’s primary results, when officials spent more than seven hours counting just 317 ballots.
Kampf was appointed county clerk after the long-time clerk resigned in July, a decision she made after election conspiracies spread throughout the county and the board of commissioners voted unanimously to recommend doing away with voting machines and count all ballots by hand.
He has worked alongside Republican secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, who helped organize the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group of candidates running to be their state’s top election official who have repeated Trump’s false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Marchant aims to scrap early voting and voting machines.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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