PAHRUMP, Nev. (AP) — A county in Nevada started an unprecedented hand count of its midterm election ballots Wednesday, a process fueled by voting machine conspiracy theories, amid concerns about early results being leaked ahead of Election Day.
Nye County, a scrub brush-dotted old silver mining region between Las Vegas and Reno, got clearance for the count from the Nevada Supreme Court last week. The approval came with conditions that it had to take numerous steps to prevent early vote tallies in any race from being reported publicly.
Six hand-counting teams of five people each were sworn in by interim Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf before splitting up into different rooms in a county building to begin the hand-count, even while the secretary of state’s office was deliberating on whether to scrap it.
“I’ve got a job to do here, which is a hand-count,” Kampf told reporters during a brief interview. He said he has had no communication with the secretary of state’s office since the Nevada Supreme Court ruling. He said he was leaving communication to the county’s attorneys.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m moving ahead with a compliant hand-count process,” Kampf said.
He clipped a police-style body camera to a pole hung over tables in the room where hand counting began. Kampf had planned to livestream the hand-count, but the state high court ruled that video can only be released after polls close.
Nevada is home to 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.
The secretary of state’s office said Nye County had to scrap plans to livestream the hand count and split teams into separate rooms so anyone observing the count of early in-person and mailed ballots would not know the “totality of returns.”
Observers also must sign a form saying they won’t release results they overhear. Anyone who does so could be charged with a gross misdemeanor.
The hand-count of all paper ballots will run parallel to the county’s machine tabulation process.
The secretary of state’s office, which oversees county clerks, has the power to approve or reject Nye County’s plan. It had not decided by late Tuesday whether the proposal was sufficient to meet the requirements set out in the Supreme Court order.
When asked if the count would go forward, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Mark Wlaschin replied “TBD.”
The concern over safeguarding the early voting 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 the machine tallies are accurate.
In hand counts, teams work together to verify the results, calling out voters’ selections race by race, ballot by ballot.
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 because the process is so arduous and time-consuming. Waiting until Election Day to begin a full hand count would risk the county — which has about 33,000 registered voters — missing the state’s 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 earlier this year 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.
The Republican’s nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, said he wants to spread hand-counting to every county. During a county commission meeting in March, he said he would try to have the state’s 15 rural counties adopt hand-counting and then “force Clark and Washoe” — home to Las Vegas and Reno — to hand-count.
Marchant has repeated unsubstantiated election claims and told audiences that elections are corrupt, saying candidates are “selected” through a rigged process rather than elected.
Nevada’s least populous county, Esmeralda, used hand-counting to certify its primary results in June, when officials spent more than seven hours counting just 317 ballots. The most populous county in the continental U.S. to rely exclusively on hand-counting is Owyhee County, Idaho, which has just a fifth of the registered voters as Nye County.
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