Election conspiracies grip Nevada community, sowing distrust

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 local dramas that consume the time of the five commissioners in this vast 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 — more than 20,000 in a typical general election — entirely by hand.

Commissioners called a parade of witnesses, including three from out of state who insisted voting 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.

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 simply felt outgunned.

“It just made me feel helpless,” 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.

She defended the system’s checks and balances that ensure an accurate vote tally, but was bombarded with technical jargon and theories unlike any she’d ever heard. “I couldn’t do anything but just sit and listen,” she said.

When the county commission voted unanimously to recommend hand-counting ballots — even though there was no evidence of any tampering — she decided she’d had enough and submitted 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 to succeed her is someone who has promoted voting machine conspiracy theories and falsely contends that Trump actually 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. 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.

Nye County, the country’s third largest by area, stretches from the strip malls on the outer margins of Las Vegas through desolate rangelands where cattle graze and the military trains pilots and practices missile-firing and bomb drops.

Conspiracy theories have long found an audience in the county. It’s home to part of Area 51, the once-secret U.S. Air Force base that draws alien enthusiasts and UFO hunters. During public comment at county commission meetings, residents reference Infowars’ Alex Jones, who has peddled fake conspiracy theories about the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. In Pahrump, the county’s most populous town, a plaque on a park bench honors the late radio host and conspiracy theorist Art Bell, who lived here until his death in 2018.

Its voters are unrelentingly Republican. In 2018, they chose a Republican brothel owner over a Democrat in a statehouse race — even though the brothel owner had died weeks earlier.

Trump won Nye County by more than 40 percentage points among the 25,427 ballots cast in November 2020. That margin, however, has done nothing to stifle the spread of conspiracy theories about voter fraud and ballot tampering.

At a recent Republican Party event and county commission meeting, many brought up stories they had heard involving QR codes, half-inserted USB drives and foreign hackers infiltrating machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems.

No evidence has surfaced to prove any of the theories, yet they continue to spread in Nye County Facebook groups.

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 take action as a way to re-establish trust in elections, a concern that fed into their vote to recommend hand-counting ballots in the upcoming November election rather than use tabulating machines.

Election experts are skeptical that hand-counting is doable 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 nonprofit that works on election procedures.

A lengthy hand-counting process could spark a political crisis in the state, a perennial presidential battleground and one of six states where Trump disputed his 2020 loss. It’s not clear what would happen if just one of Nevada’s 17 counties fails to finish counting votes within the seven-day timeframe required under state law, or declines to certify the results.

The secretary of state’s office has said hand-counting could conflict with state law and has scheduled hearings in August to discuss regulations for any county planning to attempt it.

Supporters of the move are undaunted. At a dimly lit Mexican restaurant in Pahrump, an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, activists attending a recent Nye County “GOP Unity” event attributed support for hand-counting to what they claimed were unexplained irregularities and suspicions about election tampering.

“You just don’t know 100%,” said Leo Blundo, a Nye County commissioner who voted against certifying the results from the June primary after he lost his reelection bid.

Pahrump Republican Tina Trenner 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 also has won support from at least one prominent Nevada Republican — Jim Marchant, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections. He has participated in rallies and other events around the country promoting the falsehood that Trump actually won the 2020 election.

“If we get out en masse and vote, we’ll overwhelm the system so that any mechanisms they have in place to manipulate the system will be negated,” he told applauding Republicans in Pahrump, without specifying who he feared would manipulate the election.

Marchant repeated a promise he made to the Nye County Commission months earlier, when the clerk said hand-counting ballots would require a substantial number of people. Marchant told The Associated Press he could provide as many members of his “election integrity” movement from Nevada and elsewhere as necessary to help with the process.

In a stump speech, Marchant said he was eager to work with Mark Kampf, the winner of the Republican Party primary in the Nye County clerk’s race. Kampf’s platform included replacing voting machines with hand-counting.

In one debate, Kampf, an accountant and corporate auditor, insisted Trump won the 2020 election. He told voters he was concerned that an interstate voter roll maintenance system could be a ploy from billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros. He warned about the misuse of ballot drop boxes, citing the film “2000 Mules.” Experts say it uses flawed analysis of cellphone data and drop box surveillance footage to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election.

Kampf, who is expected to be appointed to replace Merlino in August, declined to comment for this story. He told the commission at its July meeting that he planned to emphasize voter education to restore trust in elections.

That may prove a tall task in a community that remains spellbound by Trump’s ongoing insistence that he was the true winner.

The degree to which distrust has entrenched itself worries Merlino, whose own efforts to educate have done little to sway her neighbors.

After a mostly quiet tenure, the self-described “personal responsibility Republican” said she has been sickened to witness fictions and falsehoods taking root in her county and politicizing the work of her fellow election workers in Nevada.

Merlino’s office has been inundated with public records requests from people looking for evidence of fraud or tampering. County residents who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election without evidence yell at her and her staff while in line to vote. Myths of stolen elections have even estranged her from members of her own family, including one to whom she hasn’t spoken in over six months.

On top of all that, the commission’s move toward hand-counting convinced her it was time to step down.

“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.

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