Esmeralda is latest rural county to try ditching electronic voting machines, move to hand counting

Esmeralda County commissioners voted Wednesday to ask their county clerk to administer all future county elections using strictly paper ballots and hand-counting, the latest rural Nevada county to attempt to overhaul election administration in response to conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

The vote marks the second major shift away from electronic voting machines in rural Nevada, after Nye County commissioners made a similar request in March. Nye and Esmeralda counties could soon be joined by two more rural jurisdictions, Elko and Lyon, whose commissioners are set to discuss alternatives to electronic voting machines later this week. 

In tiny Esmeralda County, where there are a little more than 600 registered voters (more than half of whom are Republicans), county commissioners sided with Republican candidate for secretary of state and 2020 election denier Jim Marchant, who pitched the idea for the switch to paper ballots during the meeting on Wednesday.

But LaCinda Elgan, Esmeralda County clerk and treasurer, pushed back on the presentation. She said the county’s voting machines have not been connected to the internet, and pointed to the litany of tests and security measures in place to ensure that votes are counted and recorded accurately. Elgan added that some voters in the county want to vote using an electronic voting machine.

As in Nye County, the decision to move forward with the changes to election administration has been left up to Elgan, because the county clerk is elected and not appointed, meaning jurisdictional issues prevent the county commission from ordering the clerk’s office to take a specific course of action.

Elgan did not immediately comment on what course of action she would take, but Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino indicated that it would not be possible to implement the changes in time for the June primary election, which is less than two months. Still, Nye County officials appear on track to implement those changes and hand count the results of the general election this November.

Several people who called into the meeting, including representatives from the ACLU of Nevada and the Let Nevadans Vote coalition, also criticized the proposal, describing it as a form of voter suppression. Federal law requires there to be at least one electronic voting machine at each polling location to ensure voters with disabilities have access to the polls.

Along with Marchant, Mark Cook, a so-called “cyber expert,” argued to the commissioners that electronic machines from Dominion Voting Systems used in Nevada, including Esmeralda County, are vulnerable to hacking that could change the outcome of an election. Cook alleged he could switch votes on a Dominion machine through an iPhone within minutes of gaining access to the machine — an allegation Cook has made at other meetings, and that has been disputed by election officials in the state.

The ideas appeared popular in the county commission’s meeting chambers, as Marchant and Cook were often met with applause following their remarks. (In 2020, 82 percent of ballots cast for president in Esmeralda County were for Donald Trump.)

Marchant also said his team “could bring in an army” to help the county count votes, and said these presentations were part of a greater plan to overhaul the state’s election system.

“I think you're doing a great job,” he told Elgan, the Esmeralda County clerk. “Problem is is we have other counties, and we have to get all counties to get on this system … We're trying to get as many of the rural counties as we can to get on this, and then force Clark and Washoe to do the same thing at some point.”

Voting changes in more counties

Commissioners in one other rural county already delayed any consideration of a major change. On Monday, Lincoln County commissioners were preparing to reconsider their relationship with Dominion Voting Systems, the county’s provider of electronic voting equipment.

However, commissioners tabled the item, citing an issue with how the two items related to Dominion were presented on the agenda. Still, Lincoln County Clerk Lisa Lloyd, who oversees the county’s elections, spoke out against the move.

She said that machines are better at counting than humans, and urged commissioners to take a “wait and see” approach to see how hand-counting election results goes in Nye County later this year.

Lloyd and Elgan also both pointed to recent comments from Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who, during an April 1 interim legislative committee meeting, suggested the state should consider taking back funding from counties that have recently moved to change election equipment. A 2017 bill set aside $1.8 million to help many rural counties purchase new Dominion voting machines.

Carlton did not identify a specific process for retrieving those funds, but said the money should be returned to the state if it is not going to be used for its approved purpose.

Though Lincoln County delayed plans to discuss a possible transition away from Dominion Voting Systems — the subject of conspiracy theories regarding unproven widespread fraud during the 2020 election — two more Nevada counties could soon end their relationships with the company.

On Wednesday, Elko County commissioners will receive an update from the county clerk regarding alternatives to their existing election system, which uses Dominion electronic voting machines. Those alternatives include “the paper ballot route” and switching to a new voting machine supplier, such as ES&S — a voting equipment company used in Carson City and, since October, Lander County.

On Thursday, commissioners in Lyon County, Nevada’s third largest county by population, will discuss a proposal similar to those introduced in Esmeralda and Nye Counties. The county’s five Republican commissioners could potentially request the county clerk to administer the 2022 primary and general elections using paper ballots and hand-counting.