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What happens when an election denier is in charge of elections? One county is about to find out

Updated August 3, 2022 - 10:46 am

What happens when an election denier is in charge of the elections?

One rural Nevada county is about to find out.

The Nye County Commission on Tuesday voted 4-1 to tap Mark Kampf to serve as the interim county clerk and oversee the 2022 general election starting Friday. Kampf will finish the term of Sam Merlino, who served as the clerk for more than two decades and resigned after the county commission requested that she eliminate electronic voting machines in favor of hand counting paper ballots.

Kampf, a former executive who has repeated the false claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, told commissioners Tuesday that he has a plan to fulfill their request to ditch the electronic voting machines and exclusively have voters cast their vote via paper ballot. His plan involves a hand count of all ballots, and a “parallel tabulation process,” which he said would be the same process that is currently in place for counting mail-in ballots.

“We only heard from one candidate who said it was paper ballots and hand counting. We’re only moving forward if we place Mark Kampf in this position, and that’s what we asked for,” Commissioner Debra Strickland said before the vote.

Kampf won the Republican primary for clerk in June and is expected to easily win a full term in November in the county that Trump won in 2020 by 40 percentage points. Kampf’s experience includes work as an accountant and an auditor. From April to July of this year, he served as the interim Nye County treasurer. Kampf was chosen for the interim role over three other candidates, two of whom were people he defeated in the Republican primary.

Problems with paper ballots

Kampf’s appointment had the support of another prominent election skeptic in Jim Marchant, a former state assemblyman and current Republican nominee for secretary of state who has been pushing debunked voter fraud claims since losing a bid for Congress in 2020. Marchant has gone as far as questioning the legitimacy of his own primary win this year.

Marchant earlier this year made the pitch to Nye County to rid its elections of electronic machines in favor of paper ballots and hand counting.

“I have been working very closely with Mark and putting together a new system that we can roll out all over the country, and that’s exactly what we plan to do so we can implement this new system as soon as possible,” Marchant said during the commission meeting Tuesday.

Kampf and Marchant both said that the plan would help rebuild trust in the election system. But election experts and Republican clerks across Nevada — including Merlino — maintain hand counting would only create more confusion, delays and problems, especially in a county the size of Nye with its more than 32,000 active registered voters.

“It’s like going backwards in terms of having efficient elections being run. The odds of making mistakes with hand counting is enormous,” said Robert Brandon, president of Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization. “It’s troubling that we’re moving away from a system that we can rely on and one that’s embraced by people over the years by both parties.”

Brandon said that county commissioners buying into false narratives will only raise more questions about the election results.

“We have a situation where a minority of people have declared that the elections are fraudulent and want to come up with ways that will be less accurate to remedy the situation. It makes no sense,” Brandon said.

Clerks opposed

Merlino and her peers in other rural counties such as Elko, Lyon and Esmeralda have said that claims about the voting machines being vulnerable and that hand counting would somehow be more secure and accurate are wildly wrong.

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

The machines are tested before and after each election and require both a fingerprint and a password for workers to access.

The Dominion voting machines, which have come under fire from election deniers following the 2020 election, produce a secondary paper ballot that is printed and can be reviewed by voters to ensure its accuracy before they cast their votes.

That was on display during Nevada’s June primary in the state’s least populated county, Esmeralda, where commissioners also requested the county clerk to move to hand counting ballots.

Before certifying the primary vote ahead of a deadline set by state law, the county spent seven hours recounting the 317 ballots cast by hand.

Esmeralda County Commissioner Ralph Keyes said everything matched, according to reporting from The Associated Press.

Merlino, who has served as Nye County’s top election official since 2000, decided to step down before the end of her term after the commissioners told her earlier this year that they wanted the 2022 elections to be conducted using hand-counted paper ballots without any electronic voting machines. Merlino stayed on through July to work through a routine systems check with the secretary of state’s office.

“We can only be pushed so far,” Merlino told the Review-Journal in May.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s commission meeting, Merlino was honored for her nearly three decades with the county with a plaque and a proclamation thanking her for her service.

An hour-and-a-half later, those same commissioners had tapped a replacement who promised to do to the election process what Merlino felt was a step too far.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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