PAHRUMP, Nev. – Volunteers in a rural Nevada county where voting machine conspiracy theories led to an unprecedented hand-count of mail-in ballots came face-to-face with one messy reality of their plan Wednesday: It’s more time-consuming than anticipated.
After a full day in the Nye County office building in Pahrump, 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Las Vegas, some 60 volunteers had counted about 900 of the 1,950 mail-in ballots that the county has received so far.
It was the first day that counting could start under a state Supreme Court ruling that said officials must prevent the public release of early results. The court also blocked a plan to livestream the vote-counting, saying video could be released only after polls close on Nov. 8.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada unsuccessfully sought to block the counting on the grounds that it could allow election results to be made public before many voters had even weighed in.
The ACLU was preparing to ask the state high court to intervene again, spokesperson West Juhl said Wednesday night. The ACLU contends the county failed to comply with Friday’s order.
“It’s an embarrassing day for our democracy. A historic disaster is brewing in Nye County,” ACLU Nevada executive director Athar Haseebullah said in a statement after watching the first several hours of ballot counting.
Juhl said an armed volunteer removed an ACLU observer from one room and attempted to take her notes.
Nye County, an old silver mining region between Las Vegas and Reno, is home to about 50,000 residents, including 33,000 registered voters. It’s best known as the home of the nation’s former nuclear weapons test site.
Nevada has one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, as well as high-stakes contests for governor and the office that oversees elections.
Two groups of five that The Associated Press observed Wednesday spent about three hours each counting 50 ballots. Mismatched tallies led to recounts, and occasionally more recounts. Several noted how arduous the process was, with one volunteer lamenting: “I can’t believe it’s two hours to get through 25” ballots.
Nye County interim clerk Mark Kampf emphasized throughout the day to “take it nice and slow.” In an interview, he declared the first day a success and said, “It was a process of learning here.”
As one person announced candidate names aloud, a verifier looked over her shoulder and three talliers marked sheets of paper. A print-out instruction sheet on a wall across from a video camera above their table urged them to “FOCUS, FOCUS” on each name that was read.
One group observed by AP found mismatched tallies for eight candidates during a verification period that lasted 30 minutes. A recount took nearly 40 minutes, and two of the recounts still had different outcomes.
“That’s going to be my new name. Mismatch,” said one of the talliers.
“It’s our first day, don’t feel bad,” the verifier replied. “As long as we catch ’em.”
“It will get better,” Kampf later told the group.
The secretary of state’s office said Nye County had to split teams into separate rooms so anyone observing the count of early in-person and mailed ballots would not know the “totality of returns.” Participants were not identified for the media.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Nevada secretary of state election officials, though, the ACLU warned that the reading of candidate names aloud within earshot of public observers constituted “a release of election results in violation of Nevada law.”
Nye County spokesman Arnold Knightly said officials could not respond to questions about the letter because the case was before the state Supreme Court.
Jennifer Russell, spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, also did not have a response to the ACLU letter.
Observers were required to sign a form saying they won’t release results they overhear. Anyone who does could be charged with a gross misdemeanor.
The AP was not not allowed to photograph the proceedings.
The concern over safeguarding the tallies is because the process is so unusual. Ballots cast early, either in-person or by mail, are typically counted by machine on Election Day, with results released only after polls close. In most places, hand counts are used after an election on a limited basis to ensure machine tallies are accurate.
Nye County commissioners voted to run a hand count of all its ballots after being bombarded with complaints by residents who have been subjected to nearly two years of conspiracy theories related to voting machines and false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
Trump won 69% of the vote in Nye County even as President Joe Biden won Nevada by about 33,500 votes.
Nye County wanted to start counting its early ballots before Election Day rather than risk missing the state’s Nov. 17 certification deadline.
Nye is the most prominent county in the U.S. to change its vote-counting process in reaction to the conspiracy theories — even though there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of machines in the 2020 election, including in Nevada. The decision prompted the long-time county clerk to resign.
Kampf has described the county’s Dominion tabulator machines as a “stop-gap” measure while it decides how to handle tallies for future elections. But the machines will remain the primary recording mechanism for this election, despite the hand counting.
“If it’s successful, and we can show that we can be effective and we learn by it, we can go to a full hand-count process,” Kampf told reporters.
The Republican’s nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, said he wants to spread hand-counting to every county. In March, he said he would try to have the state’s 15 rural counties adopt hand-counting, then “force Clark and Washoe” — home to Las Vegas and Reno — to do so.
Marchant has repeated unsubstantiated election claims and told audiences that elections are corrupt.
Nevada’s least populous county, Esmeralda, used hand-counting to certify its primary results in June, when officials spent more than seven hours counting 317 ballots. The most populous county in the continental U.S. to rely exclusively on hand-counting is Owyhee County, Idaho, which has one-fifth of the registered voters as Nye County.
This story was first published on October 26, 2022. It was updated on October 28, 2022 to correct the stage at which the tally team found eight mismatches. They found the mismatches during the 30-minute verification period, not in their first 30 minutes.
Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas 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
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