TONOPAH, Nev. (AP) — The Nye County Commission is used to dealing with all sorts of hot-button controversies.
Water rights, livestock rules and marijuana licenses are among the many local dramas that consume the time of the five commissioners in this vast swath of rural and deeply Republican Nevada. Last spring, it was something new: voting machines.
For months, conspiracy theories fueled on social media by those repeating lies about former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 inflamed public suspicions about whether election results could be trusted. In response, the commission put a remarkable item on its agenda: Ditch the county’s voting machines and instead count every vote on every ballot — more than 20,000 in a typical general election — entirely by hand.
Commissioners called a parade of witnesses, including three from out of state who insisted voting machines could be hacked and votes flipped without leaving a trace. They said no county could be certain their machines weren't accessible via the internet and open to tampering by nefarious actors.
It was all just too much for Sam Merlino, a Republican who has spent more than two decades administering elections as the county’s clerk. She simply felt outgunned.
“It just made me feel helpless,” she said in a recent interview from her office in Tonopah, an old silver mining town surrounded by hills of rock and sagebrush about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno.
She defended the system's checks and balances that ensure an accurate vote tally, but was bombarded with technical jargon and theories unlike any she'd ever heard. “I couldn’t do anything but just sit and listen,” she said.
When the county commission voted unanimously to recommend hand-counting ballots — even though there was no evidence of any tampering — she decided she’d had enough and submitted her resignation. Merlino will step down next week and leave the administration of elections in a county about twice the size of New Hampshire to a new clerk; the most likely candidate to succeed her is someone who has promoted voting machine conspiracy theories and falsely contends that Trump actually won the 2020 election.
Merlino’s departure and Nye County’s plans to scrap voting machines and hand-count every ballot open a window into the real-world consequences of unfounded conspiracy theories that have spread across the country since Trump’s defeat. The moves also raise questions about how local elections will be run when overseen by people who are skeptical of the process.
A network of people peddling conspiracy theories about the security of voting machines has hop-scotched the country for more than a year, spinning elaborate yarns involving Venezuelan software, the Chinese Communist Party and offshore servers. They have tried to persuade state and local officials to do just what Nye County is attempting.
While no state has taken the same step, their efforts find fertile ground in conservative parts of the U.S. such as Nye County, where suspicions of government run deep. Already this year, some rural county boards have threatened to refuse to certify the results of their primary elections, even without evidence of problems.
Nye County, the country's third largest by area, stretches from the strip malls on the outer margins of Las Vegas through desolate rangelands where cattle graze and the military trains pilots and practices missile-firing and bomb drops.
Conspiracy theories have long found an audience in the county. It’s home to part of Area 51, the once-secret U.S. Air Force base that draws alien enthusiasts and UFO hunters. During public comment at county commission meetings, residents reference Infowars’ Alex Jones, who has peddled fake conspiracy theories about the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. In Pahrump, the county’s most populous town, a plaque on a park bench honors the late radio host and conspiracy theorist Art Bell, who lived here until his death in 2018.