Frayed trust frustrates some rural Nevada election officials

(AP) — In deep-red Republican rural Nevada, election officials are fighting back against a push to return to hand counting paper ballots.

For some, the fight is paying off.

For others, pleas have fallen on unsympathetic ears.

Since the late 2021, seven of Nevada's 17 counties have considered either switching away from Dominion electronic voting machines, which have come under fire following the 2020 election, or eliminating electronic voting systems altogether in favor of paper ballots and hand counting, a move that local election officials argue would only create more distrust, uncertainty and delays in the election process.

Two counties, Nye and Esmeralda, are asking their clerks to conduct the 2022 elections using paper ballots and hand count the results, a move that was presented to the commissioners by Jim Marchant, a former Republican assemblyman now running for Nevada secretary of state.

The decision blindsided longtime Nye County Clerk Sam Merlino, a Republican and the county's top election official since 2000.

“I literally wanted to resign that day. After doing it for so long, you'd think people would have a little trust in you,'' Merlino told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a recent interview.

“We expected that after 2020 people would say that clerks and election officials did a great job, that they got us through the pandemic and the elections. But we never heard that. Immediately they said everything was fraudulent,'' Merlino said. “Now you don't feel like anyone respects the office anymore.''

Merlino isn't alone. The disinformation campaign against voting systems in Nevada is taking its toll on election officials across the state.

“I thought this was ridiculous from day one. I thought that it would pass. When someone loses an election, it's a good excuse to blame something, and that's what happened. But it's taken on a life of its own,'' Lyon County Clerk Nikki Bryan said.

“I'm a Republican, but I just don't buy into that garbage,'' added Bryan, who chose not to run for re-election as clerk-treasurer after more than two decades in the role.

Merlino and Bryan and their clerk counterparts across the state have spoken out publicly in meetings to defend the accuracy of the 2020 elections and voice their concerns with their counties considering moves to go back to hand-counting paper ballots.

Nye and Esmeralda are the only two counties that have voted in favor of hand counting so far.

Other rural counties, including Lyon, Lincoln and Elko, tabled the discussions after briefly considering them.

Lander County decided last fall to switch from Dominion machines, which are used in 15 other Nevada counties, to ES&S Equipment, the other voting machine vendor approved by the state and used by Carson City.

Merlino is not running for re-election and initially planned to retire in December 2021. But after Nevada's redrawing of legislative and congressional districts happened much later than it normally would because of the pandemic, she didn't feel right leaving her staff in such a precarious situation and told the commissioners she would fulfill her term through the 2022 election cycle.

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That all changed in March when the county commissioners told her they would be formally asking her to conduct the 2022 elections using hand-counted paper ballots.

The notice came days before the meeting. She didn't know who would be arguing in favor of the move or what specific arguments they would make so that she could prepare her own counterpoints.

Merlino informed commissioners that she would resign in early August, staying only long enough for the office to work through a routine systems check with the secretary of state's office.

“We can only be pushed so far,'' she said.

None of the proposed changes could take effect before the June 14 primary election, however. The earliest a switch to paper ballots could take place would be in November. And county commissioners cannot force the elected clerks to stop using electronic machines and switch to paper ballots; they are only allowed to recommend or request that they do so.


In an interview, Marchant, 65, said he doesn't trust electronic voting machines based on his background — he previously owned technology companies. He said that gives him more insight into the voting machines than the clerks and their staff who work directly with the machines. He claims that hand counting is the only accurate way to tally the votes.

The voting machines are not connected to the internet and do not use Wi-Fi, making it extremely unlikely that they could be hacked, Bryan said.

There are also several additional safeguards in place, Bryan added. The equipment requires both a fingerprint and a password for workers to access, and the machines are tested before and after each election.

The Dominion voting machines all produce a secondary paper ballot that is printed and can be reviewed by the voter to ensure its accuracy before they cast their vote.

Bryan said Lyon is also required to audit four random machines after the election. Those audits include taking the paper rolls out of the machines and hand counting the totals to make sure the machine counted everything correctly. Those audits have always shown that the machines were accurate, she added.

Elko County Clerk Kris Jakeman, who worked in the clerk's office for nearly two decades before she was elected as the county's top election official in 2018, echoed those comments.

Jakeman said Elko, like other counties, has worked with Dominion since the mid-2000s when the company was called Sequoia.

“We have a great partnership with Dominion. We have never found any errors or instances of discrepancies with the machines as long as I've worked here,'' she said.

Jakeman, a Republican, also pushed back on the notion that hand counting would somehow be more accurate than the machine tally, because hand counting could lead to human error, a point that Merlino and Bryan also noted.

“People get tired. They get distracted. They may have a bias. Machines don't,'' Jakeman said.

One of Marchant's Republican primary opponents in the secretary of state race, Sparks Councilman Kristopher Dahir, has been critical of Marchant's push in the rural counties.

Voting and counting machines, Dahir said, have helped to eliminate issues with hand counting of paper ballots that election officials in the past had to deal with. Dahir called Marchant's push short-sighted and said it would only “create more chaos and not help anything.''

“We don't need to go to the dark ages in order to vote,'' Dahir said.