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Arizona and Nevada counties plan to hand count ballots for midterms

<i>Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

By Fredreka Schouten

Two counties in Western battleground states are moving forward with plans to hand count ballots in this year’s consequential midterm elections — a sign of the deep distrust of electronic vote tallying machines in some pockets of the country.

The two Republicans on the three-member Cochise County, Arizona, Board of Supervisors this week voted to authorize a “hand-count audit” in all precincts — over the objection of the county attorney, who said the move violates Arizona law.

In neighboring Nevada, meanwhile, the top election official in rural Nye County said he is forging ahead with plans to start hand counting mail-in ballots this week.

Officials in both communities still plan to use machines to tally the results, but experts worry the plans could result in two different totals and could further undermine public trust in elections. Critics say hand counting thousands of ballots is not likely to produce accurate results.

“They are elevating a process that’s prone to failure,” said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of All Voting is Local, who was among the residents who testified in opposition to Cochise County’s plan this week.

In both Arizona and Nevada, November’s elections will determine the outcome of high-stakes gubernatorial and Senate contests, as well as important contests over the states’ election chiefs.

Questions remain

In Cochise County, a southeastern Arizona community with roughly 87,000 voters, the board of supervisors on Monday voted 2-1 to approve a hand recount of ballots with just two weeks remaining until Election Day.

“I still don’t see this — legal or illegal, by the way — as something that’s going to hurt our election process,” Peggy Judd, one of the Republican supervisors, said before the vote. “I’d really like to … take this chance.”

But many details about how the process would work remain unsettled — including whether the proposed audit amounted to a hand count of all ballots and whether it might delay the certification of results from the county.

In a letter sent to the county on Tuesday, Kori Lorick, the state elections director, said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has “serious concerns about the legality” of the board’s vote. And she warned of potential legal action if the county attempts an expansive hand count.

Hobbs is on the ballot in Arizona as the Democratic nominee for governor. She faces Republican Kari Lake, a prominent skeptic of former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss in the state.

Lake and Mark Finchem, the Republican who hopes to succeed Hobbs as secretary of state, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit earlier this year to end the use of machines to record and tally votes.

A ‘test’ in Nevada

In Nevada, rural Nye County is one of the first in the country to move forward with hand counting ballots in response to conspiracy theories about vote recording and tallying machines.

Officials there recently altered some of their plans to count mail ballots after Nevada’s Supreme Court imposed several restrictions on the county’s procedures, in response to an emergency petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. In its lawsuit, for instance, the ACLU had argued that the county’s proposal to hand count ballots — with volunteers saying aloud the choices on each ballot — risked leaking results before Election Day in violation of state law.

Nye County’s interim clerk, Mark Kampf, told CNN the counting will not be live-streamed. In addition, any member of the public observing the count in person must sign a statement pledging not to disclose information about early votes in advance of official results being released.

The hand counting of mail-in ballots will begin Wednesday and run through November 12, the deadline for mailed ballots to be received in Nevada. (The ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day.)

Kampf said 98 volunteers had been selected and trained to carry out the work.

Nye County has about 33,000 registered voters, and about 17,500 cast ballots in the midterm elections four years ago, he said.

“The hand count is a test of concept to verify, one, is the process feasible? And, two, is it accurate?” Kampf said.

Kampf and Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state, have described the new procedure as a test for an eventual shift away from tabulating machines.

As CNN has previously reported, Marchant has lobbied the Nye County Commission and other officials in rural parts of the state to end the use of machines. After a 5-0 commission vote to move to hand-counting, then-Clerk Sandra “Sam” Merlino opted to move up her planned retirement rather than oversee the controversial move.

Over the summer, the commission selected Kampf to replace Merlino. Earlier this year, he won the Republican primary for the post and is now on the general election ballot.

Kampf, a retired financial executive, has falsely claimed Trump won the 2020 election. In interviews with CNN, he refused to discuss his contention that Trump won reelection, saying it’s not relevant to his current job and that he’s seeking to rebuild trust in elections.

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