Nevada: On a rural stretch of Nevada, about an hour away from the neon-soaked casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, a battle over American democracy is playing out in real time.
Here, in the deeply conservative town of Pahrump, Donald Trump-fuelled conspiracy theories about the security of electronic voting machines have led to officials switching to a new system of counting paper ballots by hand, sparking fears of chaos at this week’s midterm elections.
To some extent, the upheaval has already begun. Last Thursday, election officials were forced to stop hand-counting early votes after the Nevada Supreme Court found their methods violated rules designed to prevent officials from prematurely disclosing any results. Officials were required to revamp their plans and seek court approval to recommence the tally.
Ginny Okawa, a poll worker who runs the local chapter of the progressive group Indivisible has been watching it all unfold with a sense of despair. Events such as last week’s brutal attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by a man convinced that the 2020 US election had been rigged merely compounded her concerns about the future of her country.
“There are still many Republicans here who are convinced their votes are being stolen, despite almost zero proof,” she tells me. “I’m really worried about what’s happening to us. It terrifies me, actually.”
Okawa is not alone. On Tuesday, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote in the midterms, which will determine who controls the US Congress – and in turn, the direction of the country for the next two years.
While Biden won’t be on the ballot until 2024, hundreds of candidates who subscribe to the view that his victory was rigged will be running for seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and state and local government roles around the country. The question is: will they all accept the outcome of their races?
“It’s estimated that there are more than 300 election deniers on the ballot all across America this year,” Biden warned in an address to the nation on Wednesday, as polls showed the Democrats were on track to lose their narrow Congressional majority amid discontent over soaring inflation and cost of living pressures.
“We can’t ignore the impact this is having on our country. It’s damaging, it’s corrosive, and it’s destructive.”
Nevada is emblematic of the election-denialism that’s keeping the president up at night, and it could also be the seat that tips the balance of power to the Republicans at the November 8 midterms.
Two years after Trump was defeated in this state, the Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s first Latina senator, is neck-and-neck against Republican challenger Adam Laxalt, a political scion whose grandfather was an old friend of Ronald Reagan.
The 44-year-old former state attorney-general Laxalt also co-chaired Trump’s last campaign in Nevada and filed several lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 election results.
While some view him as the next generation of Trump’s “MAGA” wing of the Republicans, others – including 14 of his own family members – have accused him of exploiting the family name and endorsed his opponent.
“We believe that Catherine possesses a set of qualities that clearly speak of what we like to call ‘Nevada grit’,” they wrote in a letter obtained by The Nevada Independent last month, in which they praised Cortez Masto’s positions on women’s issues, her bipartisan opposition to a proposed federal mining tax, and her eight-year record as Nevada’s attorney-general.
Nevada is also home to a less prominent but equally contentious race for “Secretary of State” – the chief elections official who has the power to accept or reject election results in their respective jurisdiction.
The Republican candidate in this particular contest, Jim Marchant, leads a national coalition of like-minded conservatives also running for the same role across the US. He also wants to ban early voting, and is the person who pushed for Pahrump officials to switch to hand counting paper ballots despite concerns this could be less accurate than the electronic machines that had been reliably used for years. At a Trump rally in June, Marchant, who has regularly polled ahead of his Democratic challenger Cisco Aguilar, made the group’s intentions clear.
“When my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024!” he declared.
Whether this happens is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt America’s growing climate of electoral distrust, conspiracy theories and extremism is having consequences.
In Arizona last week, a vigilante watchdog group called Clean Elections USA received a court-issued temporary restraining order after monitoring ballot drop boxes dressed in militia gear and armed with guns, sparking claims of voter intimidation.
In Colorado, hazmat units and other law enforcement agencies were called to investigate a “suspicious, powdery substance” found in a ballot mailed to the Adams County elections office.
And in the suburbs and towns of Nevada, there was no shortage of voters who had lost faith in their democratic institutions, including some who did not plan to vote at all this year.
“The last election showed us everything’s a total hoax,” a 65-year-old taxi driver tells me, citing the postal voting system that Trump had falsely claimed led to widespread fraud in 2020.
“This country is so divided and it’s a sad thing, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Such sentiments are making it hard for political strategists to predict exactly how this week’s election will go, although the conventional wisdom is the Republicans will reclaim the House of Representatives, while the Senate remains a toss-up.
But the stakes could not be higher. Whatever happens won’t just determine the fate of Joe Biden’s first term agenda, it will also set the political stage for the next presidential election in 2024, and the expected return of Donald Trump.
It’s little wonder both parties have spent millions of dollars on attack ads to woo what might be left of independent and undecided voters.
Democrats have sought to paint Laxalt and Marchant as extremists on issues such as abortion and election integrity, while Republicans have sought to blame their opponents for soaring inflation and cost of living pressures.
In a tourism-reliant state that was upended by the COVID pandemic and has since had some of the highest fuel prices in the country, the latter is proving to be a more effective strategy.
“Jobs, cost-of-living, inflation and gas prices are top of mind for voters,” says Reno-based Republican consultant Greg Ferraro.
“I think the Dobbs decision [which led to federal abortion rights being overturned by the US Supreme Court] is an important issue, too. I just don’t think it has the same intensity level.”
It’s a sentiment that’s not lost on Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents the 60,000 hospitality workers that drive Nevada’s economy: from cooks and bussers, to waiters and guest attendants.
Last Tuesday, in a bright white hall tucked behind the towering Strat Skypod on the northern end of the strip, Pappageorge stood alongside Democratic secretary of state candidate Cisco Aguilar, revving up union members who were heading out to doorknock across the suburbs of Vegas.
“If we vote, we win!” they chanted alongside workers – a mantra that was echoed hours later at a Nevada Democrats rally with Barack Obama.
Pappageorge agrees that the economy is the key driver of voter opinion at this election but says the Democrats have a better plan to improve it.
“For our members, it’s very personal,” he says. “Gas prices have soared because oil companies are price gouging, and some of our members have experienced $US300-$US500 rent increases thanks to Wall Street landlords – these giant hedge funds and private equity firms that are buying up properties and then raising rents through the roof. We have an opportunity to fight back.”
This argument has been central to the Culinary Union’s on-the-ground campaign: a massive mobilisation effort to knock on one million doors by Election Day, particularly targeting Latino, black and Asian communities.
Among the union’s volunteers is 21-year-old Edrulfo Camacho and his mother Angelica, who I joined this week as the pair canvassed for votes in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas.
It was a tough gig for the pair as they traversed the palm-lined streets in the Nevada heat. Over the space of an hour, plenty of doors were knocked but only a few opened. The biggest breakthrough came about 30 minutes into the walk, when Edrulfo and Angelica convinced a friendly gentleman to head to the polls and vote early.
Asked how he feels about the midterms – and if he is concerned about the integrity of elections in his state, Edrulfo is pragmatic.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he says. “I just hope it’s for the better because this election is really important.
“It’s about my future and the future of other people who are really struggling.”
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