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Judge hears Trump campaign lawsuit over mail ballot counting

Updated October 28, 2020 - 9:31 pm

CARSON CITY — Attorneys for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and Nevada election officials sparred in a daylong hearing over the Trump campaign’s latest attack on the state’s mail-in ballot process put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nevada Republican Party and Trump’s re-election campaign filed the lawsuit on Friday asking the the court to stop Clark County from counting and verifying mail ballots.

The lawsuit had asked for a temporary restraining order to immediately halt the county’s efforts. Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson denied that request hours after the lawsuit was filed but allowed the case to move forward to a hearing.

Wilson did not issue a ruling at the end of the Wednesday’s nine-hour hearing, saying that a decision would come “as soon as possible.”

Attorneys for the Trump campaign and state Republican Party argued the county’s signature verification process for mail-in ballots was lacking and that observers were not given ample opportunities to view or challenge the work of election workers.

Those charges mirror complaints raised by Republicans in recent weeks that watchers are being kept too far away from the process for “meaningful observation” and that county officials would not allow the Republican party to install cameras inside the observation areas.

Political motive?

During his opening statement, Nevada Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Zunino said the lawsuit had clear partisan motives of trying to disqualify ballots cast in the Democratic-leaning Clark County.

“Clark County is a blue county, and this is a numbers game. And quite frankly they would like to exclude as many ballots in Clark County as they can. They want a high rejection rate,” Zunino said. “They are not challenging the process in Elko County or Humboldt County or Carson City because those are red counties.”

The Republicans’ attorneys objected to Zunino’s comments because as he was speculating on motive, and the judge struck the comments from the record he’ll use in making his decision.

Jesse Binnall, the attorney for Trump’s campaign and the GOP, leaned on the unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots could lead to more voter fraud as reason for asking the judge to force election officials to allow “meaningful observation” of the verification of mail-in ballots, including allowing watchers to have access to all parts of the verification process and be close enough to verify data, including being able to see individual voter signatures.

Binnall said that some voters might be so emotional in this election, that they might “have their say several times.”

“There is not a transparency system in Clark County that could guard against the fraud that could happen,” Binnall said. “There needs to be some sort of accountability to make sure that bad actors don’t steal elections.”

Republicans have filed numerous lawsuits in both state and federal courts, challenging Nevada’s mail-in ballots, alleging unproven claims of voter fraud, all of which thus far have been dismissed.

In September, U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign, writing that “not only have plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial risk of voter fraud, the State of Nevada has its own mechanisms for deterring and prosecuting voter fraud.”

Elections experts have said mail-in ballots are safe, and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske testified this year that her office did not find any fraud during the state’s primary election, which was conducted almost entirely by mail.

Democrats ahead

Mail-in ballots submitted in Nevada thus far have heavily trended toward Democrats. As of Tuesday, 227,015 Democrats had voted by mail, compared with 116,979 Republicans. There have been 112,099 mail-in ballots submitted by nonpartisans or third-party voters.

With early in-person voting totals added, Democrats hold the overall voter-turnout lead with less than a week until Election Day. About 42 percent of the 835,093 ballots cast as of Wednesday morning, 41.3 percent have been from Democrats and about 35.4 percent from Republicans.

Witnesses called during Wednesday’s hearing by the Republicans’ attorneys mostly included people working as volunteer poll workers for the Trump campaign, some of whom were recruited from other states, including California and New Jersey. Two said that they did not start observing election workers until Monday, three days after the lawsuit had been filed.

Clark County’s attorney Maryanne Miller noted that of the several observers called by Republicans to testify Wednesday, just one was a registered voter in Clark County — the named plaintiff on the case, Fred Kraus, a former executive vice president and general counsel for Las Vegas Sands Corp.

The lawsuit also asked the court to stop Clark County from using an Agilis ballot sorting machine that verifies the signatures. Miller said that the Republican Party has known about the use of the Agilis machine for months, but only challenged its use once the county began verifying signatures and counting votes.

“They have not identified any error or any fraud that taking place,” Miller said.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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