People wait to vote in-person at Reed High School in Sparks prior to polls closing on Nov. 3, 2020.
RENO — An election reform package has been rejected in Washoe County with the help of critics that included a lawyer involved in one of the most famous recounts in state history.
Alex Flangas, a lawyer in Washoe County for 37 years, told the commission Tuesday hand-counting of ballots has long been widely recognized as the worst way to ensure accurate results. After seven hours of passionate public comment on both sides, the Washoe County Commission voted 4-1 to defeat a resolution that would have posted sheriff's deputies at all polling places and required most ballots to be cast with paper ballots counted by hand.
The push for hand-counting ballots came amid mistrust of elections among many Republicans who believe the false narrative that widespread fraud cost former President Donald Trump reelection in the 2020 presidential contest.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee hired Flangas in 1998 to represent GOP Rep. John Ensign's campaign in a legal battle seeking a recount of his 401-vote loss to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid that year. Flangas disclosed to commissioners that he pushed for hand-counting of ballots in 1998 because he knew it was prone to error and would make the results easier to challenge in court.
"I fought for and obtained a hand-recount of the ballots in Washoe County and let me tell you why: because we knew — and everybody knew — that it would produce more error," Flangas said.
"You got that right. Produce more error. Because that was the chance John Ensign had to win," he said in a candid explanation of their long shot legal strategy. "Hand-counting of ballots we know will produce problems."
Reid eventually was declared the winner in December that year when Ensign — "with a bit of integrity we haven't seen over the last year — conceded the election after the recount," Flangas said.
The 1998 legal fight centered in part on the fact Washoe County ran out of official ballots and decided to photocopy some, which subsequently were rejected by the voting machines, he said.
"The machines did their job. They determined that those ballots were not valid ballots. They weren't counted," Flangas said.
"Despite the fact we all think they are great," he said, "hand-counting of ballots every single time produces more error than machines."
Commissioner Jeanne Herman, a conservative who introduced the resolution and cast the lone "yes" vote, acknowledged before the final vote the county lacked the legal authority to adopt many of the 20 changes she proposed.
Critics said the reforms would suppress voting and intimidate voters when there had been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the county or the state.
Sheriff Darin Balaam told the panel in a letter earlier Tuesday his office couldn't afford to staff all polling places with deputies — an idea Herman had proposed after county lawyers told her that her original plan to man the polls with National Guard troops was illegal.
Projections had put the cost of implementation of the overall package at about $5 million, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada had vowed to sue if the plan was approved.
Last week in rural southern Nevada, Nye County commissioners said they want paper votes counted by hand during primary and general elections this year, although their top elections official said she couldn't immediately commit enough staffing or supplies and doesn't have regulations to follow.
Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino, an elected official who has had her job since 2000, has authority to accept or reject the recommendation from the five-member commission.
"It would be physically impossible for me to implement this for the (June 14) primary election," she told AP following the all-Republican County Commission's unanimous vote endorsing the measures. "I have made a commitment to look at it."