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Hand ballot counting begins slowly in rural Nevada county

Nevada is home to one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, as well as high-stakes contests for governor and the office that oversees elections.

PAHRUMP, Nev. (AP) — Ballot counting began slowly Wednesday in a Nevada jurisdiction where officials citing concerns about voting machine conspiracy theories pressed forward with an unprecedented hand tally of votes cast by mail in advance of Election Day.

One group of five people working in a room witnessed by The Associated Press tallied 50 ballots in three hours and nine minutes in Nye County, where about 33,000 people are registered to vote. Similar groups of five people worked in five additional rooms in a county office building in Pahrump, 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Las Vegas.

The county reported that almost 1,100 ballots had been cast by mail and in-person as of Tuesday.

“It will get better,” interim Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf told the group — one reading names aloud, a verifier looking over her shoulder and three talliers marking sheets of paper — sitting around a wooden table. A sign next to a video camera above them urged them to “FOCUS, FOCUS.” Kampf said the next batch of ballots to be counted would be 25 at a time, instead of 50.

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The county received guidance from the state Supreme Court last Friday for counting to start Wednesday — if officials prevent public release of early results in any race and only release video of the count after polls close on Nov. 8.

The county on Monday scrapped a plan to livestream the count, and the Nevada secretary of state’s office was still reviewing the plan when Kampf swore in the first shift of 30 people for the morning count. A similar afternoon shift began after 1 p.m.

“I’ve got a job to do here, which is a hand-count,” Kampf told reporters at the start. He said county attorneys were to communicate with secretary of state officials following the Nevada Supreme Court ruling.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m moving ahead with a compliant hand-count process,” he said.

Nye County is a scrub brush-dotted old silver mining region now home to about 50,000 residents between Las Vegas and Reno. It is best known as the home of the nation’s former nuclear weapons test site.

Nevada is home to one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, as well as high-stakes contests for governor and the office that oversees elections.

The secretary of state's office said Nye County had to split teams into separate rooms so anyone observing the count of early in-person and mailed ballots would not know the “totality of returns.” Participants were not identified for the media.

The group observed by AP found during their first 30 minutes that they had mismatched numbers for eight candidates. A recount took nearly 40 minutes, and two of the recounts still had different outcomes.

“That’s going to be my new name. Mismatch,” said one of the talliers.

“It’s our first day, don’t feel bad,” the verifier replied. “As long as we catch ’em.”

Observers also must sign a form saying they won't release results they overhear. Anyone who does so could be charged with a gross misdemeanor.

The hand-count of all paper ballots will run parallel to the county’s machine tabulation process.

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees county clerks, has the power to approve or reject Nye County's plan. It had not decided by late Tuesday whether the proposal was sufficient to meet the requirements set out in the Supreme Court order.

When asked if the count would go forward, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Mark Wlaschin replied “TBD.”

The concern over safeguarding the early voting tallies is because the process is so unusual. Ballots cast early, either in-person or by mail, are typically counted by machine on Election Day, with results released only after polls close. In most places, hand counts are used after an election on a limited basis to ensure the machine tallies are accurate.

In hand counts, teams work together to verify the results, calling out voters' selections race by race, ballot by ballot.

Nye County commissioners voted to run a hand count of all its ballots after being bombarded with complaints by residents who have been subjected to 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.

Trump won 69% of the vote in Nye County even as President Joe Biden won Nevada by about 33,500 votes.

Nye County wanted to start counting its early ballots before Election Day because the process is so arduous and time-consuming. Waiting until Election Day to begin a full hand count would risk the county missing the state’s certification deadline, Nov. 17.

Nye 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, including in Nevada. The decision earlier this year prompted the long-time county clerk to resign.

Kampf has described the county's Dominion tabulator machines as a “stop-gap” measure while it decides how to handle tallies for future elections.

The Republican's nominee for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, said he wants to spread hand-counting to every county. During a county commission meeting in March, he said he would try to have the state’s 15 rural counties adopt hand-counting and then “force Clark and Washoe” — home to Las Vegas and Reno — to hand-count.

Marchant has repeated unsubstantiated election claims and told audiences that elections are corrupt, saying candidates are “selected” through a rigged process rather than elected.

Nevada’s least populous county, Esmeralda, used hand-counting to certify its primary results in June, when officials spent more than seven hours counting 317 ballots. The most populous county in the continental U.S. to rely exclusively on hand-counting in Owyhee County, Idaho, which has one-fifth of the registered voters as Nye County.

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By GABE STERN Associated Press/Report for America

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