54.4 F

As election nears, Nevada county clerks grapple with burnout


By GABE STERN Associated Press/Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Aubrey Rowlatt is retiring early after one term as Carson City’s clerk-recorder, having seen drastic changes in the way elections are administered and scrutinized in her small county office and across Nevada.

Rowlatt’s job duties go far beyond running the county’s elections, but she said she had to put much of her other work on hold in the lead up to the 2020 vote “because there’s no way I’m going on Fox News because I missed an election deadline.” It turned out to be a recipe for burnout.

Across Nevada, those in charge of elections have started to resign at increased rates. Ten of the state’s 17 counties have had turnover in clerk or voter registrar positions from the 2020 election through the midterms, according to an Associated Press tally.

In Storey County, one of former President Donald Trump’s so-called fake electors who signed certificates falsely stating Trump won in Nevada is now running elections after two other clerks resigned early.

In Elko County — where county commissioners might try to do away with machine voting after this election — the longtime clerk decided to run for reelection at the last minute, after considering stepping down.

The resignations include the secretary of state’s elections department, where internal records show three of 11 employees have remained since the 2020 election. The department says another five have come and gone in that span — a result of both election fatigue and better opportunities elsewhere.

It’s a trend seen across the country yet amplified in this Western swing state where toss-up races across the ballot feature GOP candidates who have cast doubt on election security and vote-counting. Five of Arizona’s 15 top elected officials are new this cycle, according to a new report, and nearly half of South Carolina’s top election officials have left since 2020.

“In many ways, it’s going to have a very significant impact on our communities,” Humboldt County Clerk Tami Rae Spero said of the turnover.

Some officials in Nevada are facing increased skepticism as their once-quiet jobs have been thrust into the spotlight.

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula speaking to the news media Nov. 3, 2020. Image: Bob Conrad.
Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula speaking to the news media Nov. 3, 2020. Spikula resigned from her job earlier this year after a barrage of harassment and threats from election deniers. Image: Bob Conrad.

They cited harassment due to election conspiracies and in some cases a lack of support from county commissioners. One received death threats that included an email saying “count the votes as if your life depends on it because it does.”

But for many clerks in rural counties it is the culmination of frustrations stemming from a misunderstood office — by distrustful voters as well as the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. Some have trouble balancing myriad duties from managing decades of public documents to safeguarding millions in public funds. Others have struggled to keep up with new voting laws passed by the Legislature to increase election accessibility.

“We don’t have staffs of 500 people. If they would just get in the weeds a little, come visit the rurals and actually talk and see how our offices run, I think they would get a clearer picture (of) just how many hats we wear,” Rowlatt said of state lawmakers.

No county clerk position is as complicated as in Carson City, which combines the job of county clerk, recorder and public administrator. As recorder, Rowlatt digitizes centuries of historical records. As public administrator, she takes on the estates of residents who die without anybody to inherit them, filing their tax returns, settling their debts and selling or distributing what’s left.

In her office sit election manuals, estate records, boxes of cremated remains and a shelf of yellow Nevada statute books. She calls the office the “underbelly” of local government — the elections, licensing and records management in Nevada’s 55,000-person capital surrounded by sagebrush and cattle.

It was this versatility that attracted her to the position — and it’s partly what’s prompting her to leave.

Baseless claims of voter fraud — even by county officials — have also taken a toll on county clerks.

“It’s kind of disheartening when you work so hard and our staff works so hard and people just don’t want to believe what we’re doing is right,” Elko County Clerk Kris Jakeman said of election skepticism.

Since the state shifted to all mail-in ballots, the number of paper ballots the Elko County Clerk’s Office sends out has increased from 2,500 to 26,000, but officials have replaced just eight of the 13 employees who left since 2021. Three have left solely due to election stress, Jakeman said.

Spero, who has been on the job in Humboldt County since 2003, is now the state’s longest-serving clerk. Former Nye County Clerk Sam Merlino resigned in July after two decades when the board of commissioners voted unanimously to recommend counting all ballots by hand.

Spero said she used to have experienced people she could lean on.

“And so now I’m the one people reach out to, and that can be a little intimidating, too,” she said.

Taking their places are a mix of new clerks with their own ideas.

Amy Burgans started as Douglas County clerk in early 2021 and implemented one of the first livestream broadcasts of polling locations on YouTube. She deals daily with unfounded skepticism about Dominion voting machines but sees that as an opportunity. In the rural county of just under 50,000 people, she tries to be a more public-facing figure by showing up at local fundraisers and meetings.

The Nevada State Republican Party posted this picture on social media after party chairman Michael McDonald, center, and five other Republicans, including Jim Hindle (second from left), signed a fake certificate in December 2020 falsely claiming that Donald Trump had won the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. Although not one of the fake electors, standing at the left is Jim Marchant, a 2020 election denier and conspiracy theorist who is also the Republican Party’s nominee for secretary of state, the office that administers elections in Nevada.

Other new clerks distrust voting machines themselves.

A Nevada Republican Party leader, Jim Hindle in 2020 signed illegitimate electoral certificates in an attempt to certify Nevada’s electoral votes for Trump. Hindle won the race for Storey County clerk over then-interim clerk Doreayne “Dore” Nevin, who had taken over after another clerk resigned. She stepped down before the end of her term, putting Hindle in charge of the 2022 election.

In Nye County, clerk Mark Kampf is implementing hand-counting and all paper ballots alongside machine tabulators, working with GOP secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, who is one of the America First Secretary of State Coalition candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election and vow to scrap early voting and vote-counting tabulators. In February, Marchant told voters at a forum “your vote hasn’t counted in decades.”

What will be their first election will be the last for Rowlatt, who thought about how distant 2018 seems, when she expected to serve two or three terms.

The converging challenges she faced that eventually burned her out — statewide redistricting, an election during COVID-19, a slew of new voting laws and a special legislative session — were also what made her tenure memorable.

“I feel like I was placed here for a reason,” Rowlatt said. “But I’m also very sure that I’m being given an out for a reason.”

Gabe Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Election 2022

This Is Reno is focused on the mayoral, city and county races for the 2022 election.

This Is Reno is your source for award-winning independent, online Reno news and events since 2009. We are locally owned and operated.