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Rare hand count of votes in rural Nevada is halted by state high court

Nevada county clerk in his office with papers before him
Interim Clerk Mark Kampf of Nye County, Nev., works in an office where early votes were being counted by hand.
(John Locher / Associated Press)
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An unprecedented hand count of mail-in ballots in a rural Nevada county is on hold and may not resume after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the current process is illegal and the Republican secretary of state directed the county clerk to “cease immediately.”

Volunteers in rural Nye County had wrapped up a second day of hand counting the ballots Thursday by the time the state Supreme Court issued an after-hours three-page opinion siding with objections raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who is in charge of elections and has been been one of the GOP’s most vocal critics of the sort of voter-fraud conspiracy theories that fueled the hand tally of ballots, said the “hand-counting process must cease immediately.”

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She requested in a letter to Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf that he confirm to her office Thursday night that the hand-count process “had been stopped.”

Cegavske’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests from the Associated Press for an update. But the ACLU said in a statement that Nye County’s attorneys had informed the organization’s legal staff that “its hand-count process has been shut down.”

“Today is a victory for all who believe in democracy,” said Sadmira Ramic, ACLU Nevada’s voting rights attorney.

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Nye County officials and their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Cegavske, citing the court ruling, said in the letter that the current hand-count procedure was prohibited at least until after the close of polls Nov. 8.

She said that “no alternative hand-counting process may proceed” until she and the county can determine if there are any feasible alternatives that would comply with the state Supreme Court order.

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In its ruling Thursday evening, the high court stopped short of ordering a halt to the recount. But the court sided with the arguments that the ACLU made in an emergency motion filed earlier Thursday.

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The ACLU accused Nye County officials of violating a Supreme Court order issued last week requiring the count to be conducted in a way that prevents public release of early results before polls close to in-person voting Nov. 8.

The ACLU argued that reading candidates’ names aloud from ballots within hearing distance of public observers violates the court rule.

Attorneys for Nye County said in a court filing earlier Thursday that the ACLU was engaging in “political stunts and ‘gotcha’ games.” It asked the court to distinguish between observers verbally describing the “vote count” and observers learning the “election results.”

On the first day of counting Wednesday, the Associated Press and other observers, including some from the ACLU, watched as volunteers were sworn in and split into groups in six different rooms at a Nye County office building in Pahrump, 60 miles west of Las Vegas.

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ACLU Nevada chief Athar Haseebullah described on Twitter what he saw as “a disaster of a process.”

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Haseebullah on Thursday provided additional detail about an apparently armed polling place volunteer who he said ushered an ACLU observer out of a counting room Wednesday in a dispute over whether the observer was improperly tallying votes on a notepad.

“That volunteer never drew a firearm,” Haseebullah said, describing what he said appeared to be a handgun handle visible in the woman’s waistband. “We weren’t removed from the counting site, but that volunteer did pull my team member out of the room where she was observing.”

Kampf, in the county filing to the Supreme Court, alleged that the ACLU observer was taking notes in violation of the court order that said observers “will not prematurely release any information about the vote process.”

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Some teams observed by the AP spent about three hours each counting 50 ballots. Mismatches, where all three tabulators didn’t have the same number of votes for a candidate, led to recounts and occasionally more recounts.

On Thursday, volunteers counted 25 ballots at a time instead of 50 — a decision Kampf made in response to the difficulty in counting 50 ballots at a time.

“The first day was a little rough as you could imagine, but today things are going very smooth, much fewer recounts,” Kampf told KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. After counting 900 ballots Wednesday, Kampf said his goal was to count about 2,000 ballots per day.

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While the county planned to count every vote by hand, it was still relying on Dominion voting machines as the primary vote tabulators for this election. Kampf has floated the idea of scrapping the machines in future elections.

In a filing last week, the ACLU sought to block hand counting before election day, saying it threatened to reveal election results before most voters could weigh in. While the state Supreme Court allowed the count to go ahead in its ruling last week, it blocked a plan to livestream the counting, saying that video could be released only after polls close Nov. 8.

The court’s new ruling Thursday came in response to the ACLU’s emergency request for a “clarification” of the earlier decision.

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.

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.

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However, Nye County commissioners voted to count all ballots by hand after complaints by residents that echoed nearly two years of conspiracy theories about voting machines and false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Trump.

Trump won 69% of the vote in Nye County although President Biden won Nevada by about 2.4%.

The Republican nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, has repeated unsubstantiated election claims and said he wants to spread hand-counting to every Nevada county.

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