Facing a Friday deadline to certify results from the recent primary election, officials in Nevada’s least populated county were planning another hand count as a way to prove to residents that their votes count and that the voting process works.
Several other county commissions also were scheduled to certify their results so they could be forwarded to the secretary of state's office, as required under state law.
Distrust by some voters in Nevada has been fueled by unfounded voting machine conspiracies that have spread across the country over the past two years.
The decision in Esmeralda County, the least populous county in the state, comes a week after lawmakers in a Republican-leaning rural New Mexico county initially refused to certify their primary election results.
Esmeralda County Commission Chairman De Winsor and Vice-Chairman Timothy Hipp responded to constituents' complaints with a promise to recount the votes themselves before Friday's deadline.
“The grassroots effort starts right here,” Winsor said midway through a contentious 90-minute meeting at which the three-member commission in the Republican-leaning county met to sign off on the results of the vote. “This is where we proved we do it right.”
Fellow Commissioner Ralph Keyes said he was already willing to accept the count of the vote conducted by county officials — including a hand-count on Wednesday by county employees of the 177 paper ballots and paper records of 140 ballots that county Clerk-Treasurer LaCinda Elgan said were cast by machine.
In a telephone interview, Elgan called the primary “absolutely safe and fair.” One vote cast on one ballot was unintelligible, she said, but all ballots were tallied and reported. None was rejected.
It did not appear the number of votes in question could affect results of primary contests that chose candidates for federal and state offices including Congress, governor, state attorney general and the top elections official in Nevada, the secretary of state.
State attorney general’s office spokesman John Sadler confirmed that Nevada law sets 11:59 p.m. Friday as the deadline to certify results of the June 14 primary. He said any hand-count of ballots before then would be considered part of the county “canvass” process.
To his knowledge, Sadler said no Nevada county had ever refused to certify results.
The role of county lawmakers in the certification process is ministerial. Attorney General Aaron Ford told The Associated Press earlier this week that the state would respond with “legal options” if county commissioners or elections officials refused to certify the results “based on posturing designed to undermine faith in our democratic process.”
Eight rural Nevada counties already have certified their results. Canvassing is scheduled Friday in Esmeralda and eight others including Clark, covering the Las Vegas area; Washoe covering the Reno area; and Nye, a Republican-leaning county including Pahrump and Tonopah.
The standoff in Nevada bore echoes of concerns raised in New Mexico’s Otero County, where commissioners stalled before splitting their vote and approving election results. Officials there cited unspecified concerns with Dominion voting systems, which have become a target since the 2020 presidential election.
New Mexico's Democratic secretary of state appealed to that state’s Democratic Supreme Court to intervene before two commissioners relented — complaining that they felt they were little more than rubber-stamps.
The three commissioners in Esmeralda voted in April to join commissioners in neighboring Nye County calling for elections to be conducted using paper ballots — and without Dominion machines. Elgan and the elected county clerk in Nye County, Sam Merlino, both said they did not believe it was feasible to stop using electronic voting machines this year.
In comments protesting the Esmeralda County primary vote, resident Mary Jane Zakas made no reference to New Mexico.
But she alleged that “hot dog tongs could have breached” ballot boxes that she said didn’t meet security standards; that partisan workers drove ballots from a remote polling place to Goldfield; and that a Dominion representative provided assistance to an election worker. Zakas said that showed the poll worker wasn't properly trained.
The clerk's office said the worker was trained, and the Dominion representative was there to help. The county clerk also said no computer malfunctioned.
Zakas also alleged in an email that “the vote could have been flipped or tampered with” during the five minutes she said a poll worker carried a thumb drive from a vote tally computer out of a room.
Elgan and Deputy Clerk Michelle Garcia said during Thursday's meeting that a printer was in the other room. Elgan said a printer will be installed in the counting room for the general election.
“We’ve got a problem. People don’t trust the system,” Zakas told the commissioners. “We’ve got a situation where a lot of people are really concerned about the safety of their votes.”
Esmeralda County, a former mining boom area, is about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno. It is home to fewer than 1,000 residents. Nearly 54% of the county's 621 active registered voters are Republicans, according to the Nevada Secretary of State, and more than 25% are non-partisan.
President Donald Trump won 82% of the vote in Esmeralda County in 2020.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.