Hand vote count stops, but Nevada county vows to try again

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A rural Nevada county roiled by voting machine conspiracy theories stopped its unprecedented effort Friday to count ballots cast in advance of Election Day.

But Nye County officials vowed to reshape their plan and seek another go-ahead from the Nevada Supreme Court, after justices ruled Thursday that counting methods used this week violated rules they set to prevent the county from allowing early disclosure of election results.

“Yesterday’s Supreme Court order requires us to make some changes to our hand count process,” Nye County officials said in a statement issued Friday that promised to "resume as soon as our plan is in compliance with the court’s order and approved by the secretary of state.”

Volunteers spent hours Wednesday and Thursday hand counting hundreds of mail ballots before the court issued a unanimous three-page opinion siding with objections raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

The ACLU accused Nye County officials of failing to prevent public release of early results before polls close to in-person voting Nov. 8. It argued that reading candidates’ names aloud from ballots within hearing distance of public observers violated the court rule.

“Today is a victory for all who believe in democracy,” Sadmira Ramic, an ALCU voting rights attorney, said late Thursday.

On 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 (96 kilometers) west of Las Vegas.

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

Immediately following the court’s Thursday decision, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Mark Wlaschin, the state’s top election officials, ordered the count to stop until after polls close on Nov. 8.

“No alternative hand-counting process may proceed,” Cegavske said a letter to interim Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf, until the counting method complies with the Supreme Court’s Oct. 21 order.

Cegavske has been one of the GOP’s most vocal critics of voter-fraud conspiracy theories that fueled hand tallying of ballots in the state. She was censured by her party for her stance and is not seeking reelection.

The sprawling county between Las Vegas and Reno, is home to about 50,000 residents, including about 33,000 registered voters. The county reported receiving nearly 4,700 ballots as of Wednesday.

Ballots cast early — in-person or by mail — are typically counted by machine on Election Day, with results released after polls close. In most places, hand counts are used after an election on a limited basis to ensure machine tallies are accurate.

Nye County commissioners voted to hand-count all ballots after complaints by residents echoing 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, but Democratic President Joe Biden won Nevada by about 2.4%.

Kampf plans to use Dominion voting machines as the primary vote tabulators for this election, but has floated the idea of scrapping the machines in future elections. The effort to begin the hand count of mail ballots is a nod to the time the process takes and a bid to meet a state certification deadline on Nov. 17.

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.

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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Associated Press writers Scott Sonner and Gabe Stern in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report. 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

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Associated Press coverage of democracy receives support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Ken Ritter, The Associated Press