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Election conspiracies grip Nevada community, sowing distrust

July 29, 2022 GMT
From left, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk on July 19, 2022 in Pahrump, Nev. The resignation of a county elections clerk in a rural county in Nevada has opened a window into the long-term consequences of election conspiracy theories. Officials in Nye County have recommended scrapping voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots — which would be more than 20,000 in a typical general election.(AP Photo/Samuel Metz)
From left, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk on July 19, 2022 in Pahrump, Nev. The resignation of a county elections clerk in a rural county in Nevada has opened a window into the long-term consequences of election conspiracy theories. Officials in Nye County have recommended scrapping voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots — which would be more than 20,000 in a typical general election.(AP Photo/Samuel Metz)
From left, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk on July 19, 2022 in Pahrump, Nev. The resignation of a county elections clerk in a rural county in Nevada has opened a window into the long-term consequences of election conspiracy theories. Officials in Nye County have recommended scrapping voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots — which would be more than 20,000 in a typical general election.(AP Photo/Samuel Metz)
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From left, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk on July 19, 2022 in Pahrump, Nev. The resignation of a county elections clerk in a rural county in Nevada has opened a window into the long-term consequences of election conspiracy theories. Officials in Nye County have recommended scrapping voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots — which would be more than 20,000 in a typical general election.(AP Photo/Samuel Metz)
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From left, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk on July 19, 2022 in Pahrump, Nev. The resignation of a county elections clerk in a rural county in Nevada has opened a window into the long-term consequences of election conspiracy theories. Officials in Nye County have recommended scrapping voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots — which would be more than 20,000 in a typical general election.(AP Photo/Samuel Metz)

TONOPAH, Nev. (AP) — The Nye County Commission is used to dealing with all sorts of hot-button controversies.

Water rights, livestock rules and marijuana licenses are among the many dramas that consume the commission’s time in this swath of rural and deeply Republican Nevada. Last spring, it was something new: voting machines.

For months, conspiracy theories fueled on social media by those repeating lies about former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 inflamed public suspicions about whether election results could be trusted. In response, the commission put a remarkable item on its agenda: Ditch the county’s voting machines and instead count every vote on every ballot entirely by hand.

When it came up for consideration, witnesses from out of state insisted machines could be hacked and votes flipped without leaving a trace. They said no county could be certain their machines weren’t accessible via the internet and open to tampering by nefarious actors.

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It was all just too much for Sam Merlino, a Republican who has spent more than two decades administering elections as the county’s clerk. She defended the system’s checks and balances that ensure an accurate vote tally, but felt bombarded by theories unlike any she had ever heard.

“I couldn’t do anything but just sit and listen,” she said in a recent interview from her office in Tonopah, an old silver mining town surrounded by hills of rock and sagebrush about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno.

When the commission voted unanimously to recommend hand-counting ballots — even though there was no evidence of any tampering — she decided to submit her resignation. Merlino will step down next week and leave the administration of elections in a county about twice the size of New Hampshire to a new clerk. The most likely candidate is someone who has falsely contended that Trump won the 2020 election.

Merlino’s departure and Nye County’s plans to scrap voting machines and hand-count every ballot open a window into the real-world consequences of unfounded conspiracy theories that have spread across the country since Trump’s defeat in 2020. The moves also raise questions about how local elections will be run when overseen by people who are skeptical of the process.

A network of people peddling conspiracy theories about the security of voting machines has hop-scotched the country for more than a year, spinning elaborate yarns involving Venezuelan software, the Chinese Communist Party and offshore servers. They have tried to persuade state and local officials to do just what Nye County is attempting.

While no state has taken the same step, their efforts find fertile ground in conservative parts of the U.S. such as Nye County, where suspicions of government run deep. Already this year, some rural county boards have threatened to refuse to certify the results of their primary elections, even without evidence of problems.

The fact that Trump won Nye County in 2020 by more than 40 percentage points has done little to quell conspiracy theories.

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Merlino recalled when an error on a sample ballot ballooned on social media into a full-blown corruption conspiracy theory about the printing company’s financial ties: “Just like anything, once a rumor starts or once something is out there, people feed on it,” she said.

County commissioners say they are obligated to try to re-establish trust in elections and view ditching the electronic vote-tabulating machines as an attempt to do so.

But election experts insist that hand-counting ballots isn’t practical anywhere except in the tiniest counties; Nye County has about 31,500 registered voters. They say the potential for human error is far greater than running ballots through a tabulator and auditing the results afterward to ensure accuracy.

“It’s a very bad idea, and everyone from the most conservative election officials to the most liberal will testify to that,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a non-profit that works on election procedures.

A lengthy hand-counting process could spark a political crisis in Nevada, a perennial presidential battleground. It’s not clear what would happen if just one county failed to finish counting votes within the seven-day timeframe required under state law or declines to certify the results.

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That scenario hasn’t deterred the idea’s supporters. Activists attending a recent Nye County “GOP Unity” event in Pahrump attributed their support for hand-counting to what they claimed were unexplained irregularities and suspicions about election tampering.

Tina Trenner of Pahrump said cutting voting off from electrical sources could help ease skepticism about election results.

“They could be hacked. Something as simple as a phone with a hotspot in it, sitting up on the counter, can suddenly make those machines available on the internet,” she said.

The push to hand-count ballots has won support from some prominent Nevada Republicans, most significantly Jim Marchant, the GOP nominee for secretary of state. While campaigning for the office that oversees elections, he’s repeated the falsehood that Trump actually won the 2020 election.

Marchant has said he is eager to work with Mark Kampf, the winner of the GOP primary for Nye County clerk. Marchant repeated a promise from months earlier, telling The Associated Press he could provide as many members of his “election integrity” movement from Nevada and elsewhere as needed to help with hand-counting.

Kampf, an accountant, has campaigned on a platform that includes ridding the county of voting machines. In a recent debate, he insisted Trump won the 2020 election. He said education and returning to hand-counting was a way to alleviate widespread distrust.

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That may prove a tall task.

The degree to which distrust has entrenched itself worries Merlino. Her own efforts to educate have done little in a community where many remain spellbound by Trump’s ongoing insistence that he was the true winner.

She’s not sure the attempt to hand-count the thousands of ballots that will be cast in November will solve it.

“I don’t think it can be done,” she said. “If they want to give it a go, that’s why I’m giving them the opportunity to do it.”

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This story has been corrected to reflect that Nye County is about twice the size of New Hampshire, not the size of New Hampshire.

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Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed.