A local race in Nevada's primary could have implications for national elections in a key swing state

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The commission that oversees Nevada’s second most populous county approved its new elections director earlier this year by a familiar split vote.

The three votes in favor came from two Democrats and a moderate Republican, Clara Andriola. The votes against came from two Republican commissioners who have raised doubts about elections or voted against certifying results and who are supported by a wider movement within the county that promotes election conspiracy theories.

Now that movement is hoping to unseat Andriola from the Washoe County Board of Commissioners in Tuesday's Republican primary and create a majority on the board. That could have national implications because the commission has some important oversight of the elections office for a swing county in one of the nation's most important presidential and U.S. Senate battleground states.

Andriola, whose bipartisan votes on the commission earned her a censure from the county GOP, said she is disheartened by the attacks from within her own party.

“I think elections should not be a partisan issue," she said. "Unfortunately, it has turned into a very partisan issue.”

The chair, Alexis Hill, said the attacks against the elections office and its workers are unfounded and damaging to democracy by undermining trust in elections and their outcome. But Hill, a Democrat, also said she is well aware of why the office is in the crosshairs of election conspiracy theorists and why they are seeking a majority on the commission.

“It’s a national issue; this is not just a Washoe County issue,” she said. “If you cast doubt in Washoe County about the election, that has a ripple effect that casts doubt on a potential swing presidential election, a potential swing Senate election. It’s very dangerous.”

The dynamic unfolding in the politically mixed region of northern Nevada, which includes Reno, is similar to dramas that have played out elsewhere, including in neighboring Arizona, another swing state where conspiracy theorists have targeted local boards and election offices the past several years.

Arizona's July primary also features those who have promoted bogus election claims and are running for the governing board and elections office in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. Officials there have been subjected to a never-ending stream of attacks and threats since Democrat Joe Biden narrowly defeated Republican Donald Trump in the state in the 2020 presidential election.

In Washoe County, a wealthy far-right activist, Robert Beadles, has financially backed the two Republicans on the commission who voted against appointing the elections director in January. He also is behind the effort to unseat Andriola, who was appointed and endorsed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo. Because the commission district covers a Republican-leaning part of the county, the candidate who emerges from Tuesday's primary will be favored to win the seat in November, which covers much of Reno’s neighboring city of Sparks as well as nearby residential areas.

Beadles, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has been on a yearslong quest to create a far-right majority on the commission that oversees government operations in the county of nearly 500,000 people.

His previous efforts have included publicly spreading rumors about the family lives of officials he opposes, unsuccessfully filing lawsuits to oust county officials and roll back protections for election workers, and leading a local movement that has encouraged officials to avoid certifying election results and overhaul the elections department. He has sometimes accused local officials of treason for not doing as he wants.

Against this backdrop, Washoe County commission meetings are regularly filled with heated rhetoric about “puppet masters” manipulating elections, false accusations of stolen votes and conspiracy theories about voting machines. The claims stem from the repeated lies promoted by Trump, who plans to hold a rally Sunday in Las Vegas.

The county is on its third election director since 2022. The latest one, appointed earlier this year, said she rarely leaves her house because of the constant public attacks.

Among the far-right primary challengers to Andriola is Tracey Hilton-Thomas, vice chair of the Washoe County GOP. Earlier, she had applied for the post overseeing elections in the county.

She told CBS that she does not believe the results of the 2020 election were legitimate. She partially walked back that claim during an interview with The Associated Press, saying she did not know enough to say for sure. Multiple reviews, recounts and audits in the states where Trump disputed his 2020 loss, including Nevada, have affirmed Biden's win, and there has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

Hilton-Thomas also has said she believes the Washoe County Registrar of Voters office routinely bypasses state laws and wastes money on voting machines and staff.

“(Someone) said if one of us was appointed other than Clara (Andriola), that there was going to be a mass exodus of employees at the county,” Hilton-Thomas said during a campaign event that was moderated by Beadles. “My opinion on that is, good. It just saves us from terminating them.”

The authority the county commission has over its election department includes appointing the registrar of voters, certifying the vote counts, identifying polling locations and providing ballots in Spanish in a county where the population is about one-quarter Latino. The state and courts provide a safeguard against any local manipulation of elections.

Through his political action committee, Beadles has endorsed former Sparks fire chief Mark Lawson for the commission seat. Lawson has maintained his innocence as he faces four felony charges related to the possession and distribution of steroids and he reached a $381,000 settlement over his termination from the fire department.

Lawson said he was skeptical of the 2020 election results and was noncommittal about whether he would oust the elections head or certify the results of an election should he win the commission seat.

“The county as a whole, with an emphasis on the Registrar of Voters, we need to get it right," he said. "Whatever modifications need to be made, let’s make them and let’s get this ship pointed in the right direction.”

The registrar appointed earlier this year, Cari-Ann Burgess, said the county is supportive of her department and that she interacts more with the district attorney and county manager than with commissioners. But the hostile rhetoric from the commission meetings has made running Washoe’s elections department a challenge. She said she works hard to insulate her staff from the vitriol.

She still loves her job and sees her goal as simple — “to make sure that democracy presides.”