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Judge denies request to stop mail ballot counting in Clark County

Updated October 24, 2020 - 1:13 pm

A Carson City judge on Friday denied a request by Republicans to halt ballot counting in Clark County.

The request came in a lawsuit that contends that the county violated state election law.

The Nevada Republican Party and President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign filed the lawsuit against Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria and Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske on Friday.

The lawsuit asked a judge to stop the counting and verification of mail ballots until the case could be heard.

But Attorney General Aaron Ford, whose office defends Cegavske in litigation, tweeted Friday afternoon that his office had “defeated President Trump’s and Nevada GOP’s request for a temporary restraining order to stop the counting of the ballots.”

Ashley M. Forest, a spokeswoman for Ford’s office, said Judge James Wilson denied the temporary restraining order. A hearing on the lawsuit has been scheduled for next week, however.

Cegavske’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Signature verification

Former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Trump co-chair for Nevada, said the campaign’s primary issue is with how the required voter signatures on the outside of mail ballot envelopes are verified in Clark County. In order for a ballot to be counted, the signature on the envelope must match the signature on file with the county’s election office.

Laxalt said the county uses a machine that matches signature verification at only 40 percent, lower than the 50 percent recommended setting by its manufacturer and the standards in other Nevada counties. He also questioned the training and expertise of staffers tasked with checking signatures the machine declines.

Laxalt said both major parties also have no way of challenging any mail-in ballot signatures as they are verified in this process, a right he said they do have during in-person voting. Once a ballot is verified, it is separated from its envelope, and the two cannot be reunited.

He cited the Bush v. Gore decision in the U.S. Supreme Court that settled the 2000 election in saying that Clark County’s more relaxed standards are “diluting” the votes cast in other counties, which is not legal. Different counties in the same state may not have different standards for rejecting ballots, he said.

Laxalt also challenged the county’s current ballot rejection rate of a little more than 1 percent.

“If it’s true all 99 percent are valid voters — their signatures match and they are legally able to vote — then for sure they should count,” Laxalt said. “But we know we have 85,000 voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, people who’ve died or moved, and the rolls haven’t been cleaned. So it strains credibility than only 2,000 of the first 200,000 (mail-in ballots) have been rejected.”

Republican criticism

Other complaints in the lawsuit match those in a letter sent by Republican lawyers to Cegavske earlier this week. The letter claims that the county was not allowing observers into all the rooms in which ballots are handled, was positioning observers too far away for “meaningful observation” and would not allow the GOP to place cameras in observation areas.

State law allows for members of the public to observe ballot counting and processing at county offices.

The party accused the county of failing to be transparent during a newly adopted election format.

State and national Republicans, including Trump himself, have routinely criticized both state Democrats, who adopted new election standards given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and mail-in balloting, which they say increases chance of ballot fraud.

Experts have said mail balloting is safe, and Cegavaske testified earlier this year that her office did not find any fraud during the state’s all-mail primary election in June.

So far, mail ballots have trended heavily in Democrats’ direction.

Statewide, 160,125 Democrats have mailed in ballots, compared with 74,384 Republicans as of Friday.

In Clark County, 107,928 Democrats and 38,355 Republicans have mailed in ballots.

Republicans have begun to outpace Democrats in in-person early voting, however, cutting the statewide Democratic lead from 17 percentage points to about 11 points over the course of the week.

Clark County is largely Democratic and holds the lion’s share of the state’s voters, while the rural counties, whose votes Laxalt claims are being “diluted,” tend to lean more Republican.

Access granted

In response to the lawsuit, Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said the election department “has gone above and beyond to provide access to observers,” creating additional observation areas beyond what is required under state law.

“The lawsuit includes many misleading or inaccurate claims,” Kulin said.

Kulin said the room to which Republicans complain about being denied access is in fact a call center for contacting voters who need to fix, or “cure,” issues with their mail-in ballots. Because election staffers may discuss personal information with voters over the phone, observation is not permitted. The call center does not house any ballots, Kulin said.

The county believes that the request for cameras in observation areas is likely not legal under state law. Kulin added that it is also inappropriate to allow one party to have exclusive access and control over cameras during the election.

Kulin said this process is administered by two-person, bipartisan counting boards. The ballots are not removed from their privacy sleeves until their envelopes have been stored in a secure location. Any ballots with problems are returned not to their envelope, but rather to a separate folder.

“At no time is the envelope with the voter’s name sought or used in this step of the process,” Kulin said.

The Republican lawsuit also misrepresents how ballots are verified, first by machine and then by hand, according to Kulin.

The number 40 does not refer to a percentage, but rather to a scored setting based on factors such as writing style, the slant of the letters and the way someone crosses their T’s. And there is no manufacturer’s recommended setting, Kulin said; jurisdictions across the country use a wide variance.

As of Friday, 30 percent of mail ballots have been accepted by the machine’s settings, meaning 70 percent were sent for verification by election staff, Kulin said.

Democrats respond

Nevada State Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy II said the lawsuit is “an obvious attempt to impede record-breaking momentum in Clark County, the most diverse county in the state.”

He said Trump and his allies have resorted to “baseless attacks to undermine confidence in Nevada’s election integrity” and are making one last, desperate play as Democrats hold an early advantage.

“The demands articulated in the GOP’s lawsuit amount to voter suppression, plain and simple,” McCurdy said.

The Trump campaign and the Nevada Republican Party also sued to try to invalidate the mail-balloting system before the election, but that lawsuit was rejected by the Nevada Supreme Court.

And a federal lawsuit against Assembly Bill 4, which authorized the sending of mail ballots to all active registered voters during a pandemic, was similarly rejected by a federal judge.

Contact Rory Appleton at rappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0276. Follow @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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