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After victory in Nevada, election deniers increase calls to eliminate voting machines

ABC News 9/28/2022
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Last month, an effort led by a rural county in Nevada handed election deniers a major victory: In November, several jurisdictions in the state will be hand-counting votes.

The Nevada Secretary of State approved a proposal allowing jurisdictions to hand-count votes starting as soon as this fall's midterm election, after Nye County, based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, decided earlier this year to abandon the Dominion voting machines it had relied on for years.

"Everyone said, 'It's not you, it's not the officials,'" said Sandra "Sam" Merlino, who resigned her position as county clerk after the county in March this year decided to use a hand-count instead of voting machines. "But what people don't understand is, I put my trust in those machines and how the process works."

MORE: With 10 weeks until midterms, election deniers are hampering some election preparations

Last week, Merlino's successor, Mark Kampf -- who himself has been echoing unsubstantiated claims of 2020 election fraud -- took a step back and announced a plan to use both hand counting and the Dominion machines for the upcoming elections as a way to cross-check results between the two methods.

Dominion, which following the 2020 election was accused by lawyers representing Trump of participating in a far-fetched scheme to switch votes from Trump to Biden, is currently suing a number of those attorneys as well as several conservative news outlets that amplified the false claims.

"Literally almost every election, I can be ready for a recount because a candidate just doesn't believe they could possibly lose," Merlino, a Republican who had served in Nye County government since 2000, told ABC News. "So it's not that I was new to [accusations of] election fraud ... but this was just on a whole different scale."

An 'easy target'

Nearly two years after Donald Trump ignited a movement of supporters who deny that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, the Nevada county has become the first in what election deniers hope will be a series of election districts across the country to turn to hand-counting -- prompting concerns among some election experts about the potential impact on the public's perception of election integrity.

In Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico, officials are seeing an increase in letters and petitions demanding the removal of electronic voting machines as election deniers and conspiracy theorists seek to change the way ballots are counted.

Derek Tisler, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan organization that tracks elections and voting rights, told ABC News that voting machines and technology are an "easy target" for conspiracy theorists.

"There's less insight into the workings of a computer among just the average voter than the other processes in the election where you can really see what's happening at every step of the way," he said.

Barb Byrum, the clerk for Ingham County in Michigan, said that conspiracy theorists have it backwards -- computers are actually more reliable than human vote counters.

"Humans are the ones who make the human errors -- tabulators do not," said Byrum, who told ABC News that she has recently started receiving emails asking the county to get rid of its voting machines.

In this July 19, 2022, file photo, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk, in Pahrump, Nev. © Samuel Metz/AP, FILE In this July 19, 2022, file photo, Nye County Commissioners Debra Strickland, Frank Carbone and Leo Blundo discuss appointing a new county clerk, in Pahrump, Nev.

"Counting the ballots, one by one, is not the solution to their conspiracy beliefs," Byrum said. "And we will be waiting for weeks for unofficial results if we were to count by hand every single race on the Michigan ballot."

'I would much prefer a machine'

The movement to eliminate voting machines has picked up steam with some supporters attending local government meetings and targeting election officials through social media. Their efforts have been encouraged by David Clements, a former college professor who has been touring the country spreading unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 vote ahead of the midterm elections.

"We'll never quit until Dominion is vanquished in New Mexico," Clements told the crowd at a recent event.

"I'll work with anyone, anywhere, to get the message out on getting rid of rigged election machines," said Clements, who began speaking out against voting machines in New Mexico's Doña Ana County prior to the 2020 election. Numerous experts have since said there's no evidence of election machines being rigged.

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin told ABC News that lately, Clements has been organizing followers to attend county commission meetings and demand that local officials remove Dominion voting machines in favor of hand counting.

David Clements speaks during an event supporting the people charged with crimes related to the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2022. © Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters David Clements speaks during an event supporting the people charged with crimes related to the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2022.

"How would you feel if you went to a grocery store, and we counted on the cashier to manually add your groceries?" said López Askin. "As much as I have faith in people, I understand that problems happen. I would much prefer a machine that has been certified, verified, and has gotten through every rigorous process there is, to confirm its accuracy."

Asked about her encounters with election conspiracy theorists, López Askin said, "What I tell them is simple: 'You don't understand. You're wrong.'"

'Lies and misinformation'

Just last week, an election denial group in Arizona launched an initiative that seeks a ban on electronic voting machines in that state.

"Arizona cannot guarantee free and fair elections until these voting machines are banned from use and removed from our state," wrote Save My Freedom founder Michele Swinick in a social media post, even though a months-long post-election audit last year reaffirmed Biden’s 2020 victory by an even bigger margin, and found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

In Colorado, far-right podcaster Joe Oltmann has also been spreading false election claims and demanding that local clerks abandon voting machines and software.

"Get rid of the machines or we are permanent slaves," Oltmann posted on his Telegram channel in late August.

Oltmann is one of those being sued for defamation by Dominion, as is MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a vocal Trump supporter who's organized a pair of voter "summits" in an effort to contest the 2020 vote. At last month's event, Lindell held a "trial of the machines" segment in which he called on experts to blame Trump's 2020 loss on voting machine irregularities.

"We have to get rid of every single machine in this country, no matter what brand they are," Lindell told ABC News. "We can't have computers and electronic voting machines."

In this Aug. 5, 2022, file photo, Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, speaks during the general session at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas. © Go Nakamura/Reuters, FILE In this Aug. 5, 2022, file photo, Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, speaks during the general session at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas.

Dominion's suit against Lindell, which was filed last February, is seeking $1.3 billion after Dominion says Lindell defamed the company by falsely claiming that Dominion's machines were used to steal votes.

"Lies and misinformation have severely damaged our company and diminished the credibility of U.S. elections, subjecting hardworking public officials and Dominion employees to harassment and death threats," Dominion says on its website.

Even states that don't use Dominion machines are being pressured to drop them.

"Most of the calls and the concerns that we hear from voters are people saying, 'Get rid of Dominion voting machines in Texas,'" Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State, told ABC News. "And if they did a simple Google search and looked on our website, they would know that we don't have Dominion voting machines."

MORE: False accusations of election fraud prompt some election workers across the US to quit ahead of Election Day

In response to calls like these, other voting machine companies say they have implemented enhanced security measures.

Officials with Elections Systems & Software, and fellow voting machine company Clear Ballot, told ABC News they've taken additional measures to protect their employees.

At Clear Ballot, which operates in 13 states, the physical address of the company's manufacturing facility was removed from its website, and staff have been trained in how to respond to a hostile situation.

Meanwhile, the company's CEO, Bob Hoyt, told ABC News that they're working to improve the voting process by utilizing new technology that provides "visual evidence" for voters, and they've also increased voter outreach to help familiarize voters with Clear Ballot's systems and machines.

"We work hard to provide transparency at all different levels of elections, and with transparency should come confidence," Hoyt told ABC News.

'We'll show you the machines'

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the county commissioners of Pennsylvania, said she has complete confidence in the current voting systems.

"Voting machines go through extensive logic and accuracy tests to make sure they are working properly and that they are securely transported to and from polling places, with limited access only for those authorized," Schaefer told ABC News.

To those who question their accuracy, Schaefer said, "We'll show you the machines. We'll show you the process we use to process voter registration so you can tell that we're making sure that each eligible voter is only accounted for one vote."

In this May 28, 2022, file photo, voters in Nye County arrives on the first day of early voting at the Bob Ruud Community Center in Pahrump, Nev. © Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images, FILE In this May 28, 2022, file photo, voters in Nye County arrives on the first day of early voting at the Bob Ruud Community Center in Pahrump, Nev.

Tisler, of the Brennan Center, said that skeptics who attend poll worker training session and voting machine demonstrations are often surprised to often learn that many of their concerns have already been thought through by voting machine and election officials.

"They're aware of how processes can be abused," Tisler said of the officials who run elections. "And they've put in place procedures to check, double check, triple check all the way throughout the election process, and make sure that eligible voters are casting ballots and that they are recording the voter choices accurately."

"There are always vulnerabilities that may exist whenever you're using computers, but that's not a reason to just discard technology altogether," Tisler said. "It's a reason to understand the technology and have safeguards put in place."

ABC News' Ali Dukakis contributed to this report.

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