RENO, Nev. (AP) — 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 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. Their letter comes ahead of an online hearing Friday afternoon about the regulations.
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.
“It’s been kind of an ongoing discussion across the nation, really. And as election officials at the state and county level, we try to think ahead,” he said. If approved later this month, the rules would be in place for November’s election.
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, already used hand-counting during certification of 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.”
Kampf, Marchant and others who have lobbied to switch to hand-counts by now are used to questioning the procedures used in 2020. But as November approaches, Nye County officials are the ones facing questions: How will the hand-count be fair and accurate? How will they get the bipartisan workers required to count the vote under the proposed guidelines? How will they work in the same offices they’ve sowed distrust in since 2020?
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.
“I will never do anything that will jeopardize the vote and the integrity of the vote in this county, ever,” he said.
Alongside the hand-count will be a parallel tabulating process that uses the same machines currently used to count mail-in ballots.
Kampf said he agrees with many of the state’s proposed hand-counting rules, though he thinks teams should count 50 ballots at a time, rather than 20.
“I may not like the law, but as clerk, I need to follow the law, period.”
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.
Carson City Clerk-Recorder Aubrey Rowlatt said it would be “extremely difficult to accurately complete and certify” hand-counted ballots within the current certification timelines. Still, she called the proposed regulations helpful for consistency.
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.
Gabe Stern, The Associated Press