Nevada ACLU requests probe into alleged partisan hand-count

Nov 2, 2022, 7:45 PM | Updated: Nov 3, 2022, 9:06 am
FILE - People walk along the main drag in the county seat of Nye County on July 18, 2022, in Tonopa...

FILE - People walk along the main drag in the county seat of Nye County on July 18, 2022, in Tonopah, Nev. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada asked the state's secretary of state Wednesday, Nov. 2 to formally investigate allegations of partisan improprieties in a hand-count of advance election ballots that's currently on hold in rural Nye County after a state Supreme Court ruling raised questions about the legality of the process last week. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada asked the state’s secretary of state Wednesday to investigate what it called a “coordinated partisan election administration effort” during rural Nye County’s hand-count of mail-in ballots that was shut down last week until after polls close.

The ACLU said a hand-count volunteer openly carrying a firearm removed an ACLU observer from a hand-count tally room, which the organization said it recently discovered was Nye County GOP Central Committee Vice Chair Laura Larsen.

The ACLU said the situation “poses questions” surrounding Nye County interim clerk Mark Kampf’s delegation of authority to partisan officials to remove observers from hand-count rooms, particularly during a hand-count process that deals with tabulation of ballots.

“A partisan official from the Nye County GOP Central Committee given free range to roam the halls and remove those engaging in observation violates the core principles underlying free and safe elections and makes an even greater mockery of our democracy,” ACLU of Nevada’s executive director Athar Haseebullah said in a statement.

It’s the latest development in a conflict between the rural county’s election administration and the ACLU that has spawned lawsuits, infighting and a Nevada Supreme Court ruling late on Oct. 27 that prompted Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, to shut down the hand-counting until after polls close on Election Day.

Several ACLU members showed up on the first day of hand-counting Wednesday in Pahrump, an hour outside Las Vegas.

Kampf said last week that the ACLU observer at issue was suspected of tallying votes, something that is prohibited when observing the hand-count. Volunteers locked the door to the entry room that led to the hand-counting rooms due to the incident with the ACLU, several volunteers said at the time. A volunteer was in charge of opening the door for all observers or volunteers that walked in.

A spokesperson for Nye County did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on Wednesday evening. Neither did Larsen nor Nye County GOP’s central committee chair.

Nye County stopped their hand-count process on Friday due to orders from the secretary of state’s office over the early release of results after two days of hand-counting. It came in response to a new opinion from the Nevada Supreme Court in favor of the ACLU’s Nevada Chapter, which argued, among other things, that the reading out of ballots risked the release of early election counts.

Despite the delay, Kampf said at a Nye County board of commissioners meeting on Tuesday that he submitted a new hand-count plan to the secretary of state’s office that he hoped to get approved this week. The Supreme Court ruling that took issue with the reading of the ballots out loud said it was up to the secretary of state and the county to ensure the legality of the hand-count.

Larsen was present both days of the hand-count, acting in what appeared to be an assistant role to Kampf, who had vowed months ago to bring hand-counting to the rural county at the request of the county commission.

She would often go into different hand-counting rooms to make sure the hand-count teams — composed of a reader, a verifier and three talliers — had materials and were counting correctly.

On the first day, when one reader was struggling with the pace at which to announce the candidates, Larsen walked in the hand-count room, sat in the reader chair and read the names herself to demonstrate the correct pace to announce names.

The reader apologized, and Larsen said “It’s better to get it right than not get it right at all. Don’t say you’re sorry.”

In an interview after the first day of hand-counting, Larsen said her role was “making sure things are going the way Mark (Kampf) has set everything up. So, just looking out for the election integrity.”

Kampf has described the county’s Dominion tabulator machines as a potential temporary measure while it decides how to handle tallies for future elections. But the machines will remain the primary recording mechanism for this election, despite the hand counting.

Nye County, home to about 50,000 residents, including about 33,000 registered voters, is the most prominent county in the U.S. to change its vote-counting process in reaction to the conspiracy theories — even though there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of machines in the 2020 election.

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. That came as the Republican nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, had repeated unsubstantiated election claims to commissioners which convinced them to request hand-counting.

The most populous county in the continental U.S. to rely exclusively on hand-counting is Owyhee County, Idaho, which has one-fifth of the registered voters as Nye County.

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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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Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.

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Nevada ACLU requests probe into alleged partisan hand-count