Republican Election Clerk Takes on Trump and His Supporters

Republican Election Clerk Takes on Trump and His Supporters

Cindy Elgan glanced into the lobby of her office and saw a sheriff’s deputy waiting at the front counter. “Let’s start a video recording, just in case this goes sideways,” Elgan, 65, told one of her employees in the Esmeralda County clerk’s office. She had come to expect skepticism, conspiracy theories and even threats related to her job as an election administrator. She grabbed her annotated booklet of Nevada state laws, said a prayer for patience and walked into the lobby to confront the latest challenge to America’s electoral process.

The deputy was standing alongside a woman that Elgan recognized as Mary Jane Zakas, 77, a longtime elementary schoolteacher and a leader in the local Republican Party. She often asked for a sheriff’s deputy to accompany her to the election’s office, in case her meetings became contentious.

“Hi, Mary Jane. What can I do for you today?” Elgan asked, as she slid a bowl of candy across the counter.

“I hope you’re having a blessed morning,” Zakas said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people are still very concerned about the security of their votes. They’ve lost all trust in the system.”

“I’d be happy to answer any questions and explain our process again,” Elgan said.

“We’re beyond that,” Zakas said. She reached into her purse and set a notarized form on the counter. Elgan recognized it as a recall petition, a collection of signatures from voters who wanted to remove an elected official from office. It had been more than 20 years since the county’s last successful recall, and Elgan leaned down to study the form.

“Name of public officer for whom recall is sought: Cindy Elgan.”

“Reasons why: Cindy Elgan has run interference in our elections.”

It was an outcome she’d feared for the last three and a half years, ever since former President Donald J. Trump lost the 2020 election, and his denials and distortions spread outward from the White House to even the country’s most remote places, like Esmeralda County. It had neither a stoplight nor a high school, and Elgan knew most of the 620 voters on sight. Trump won the county with 82 percent of the vote despite losing Nevada. In the days after the election, some residents began to suspect that he should have won by even more, and they parroted Trump’s talking points and brought their complaints to the county’s monthly commissioner meetings.

They falsely claimed the election was stolen by voting software designed in Venezuela, or by election machines made in China. They accused George Soros of manipulating Nevada’s voter rolls. They blamed “undercover activists” for stealing ballots out of machines with hot dog tongs. They blamed the Dominion voting machines that the county had been using without incident for two decades, saying they could be hacked with a ballpoint pen to “flip the vote and swing an entire election in five minutes.” They demanded a future in which every vote in Esmeralda County was cast on paper and then counted by hand.

And when Elgan continued to stand up at each meeting to dispute and disprove those accusations by citing election laws and facts, they began to blame her, too — the most unlikely scapegoat of all. She had served as the clerk without controversy for two decades as an elected Republican, and she flew a flag at her own home that read: “Trump 2024 — Take America Back.” But lately some local Republicans had begun referring to her as “Luciferinda” or as the “clerk of the deep state cabal.” They accused her of being paid off by Dominion and skimming votes away from Trump, and even though their allegations came with no evidence, they wanted her recalled from office before the next presidential election in November.

“Prophecy says stand your ground and start in your own backyard,” Zakas said. “I’m sorry it had to come to this.”

“So am I,” Elgan said. She took the recall petition back into her office, and over the next several days she continued to flip through the pages in disbelief. She counted at least 130 signatures, which at first glance appeared to be enough to force a recall election if the signatures and corresponding addresses proved legitimate. Nevada allowed a period of 20 days for voters to reconsider and remove their names from the petition. After that, Elgan’s office would work with the secretary of state to confirm signatures and determine if the petition was successful and whether Elgan still had a job.

“This is actually insane,” said Angela Jewell, the deputy clerk. “This is how democracies end. There must be some way to reason with a few of these people.”

“It’s like talking to that wall right there,” Elgan said. “I’ve given them every fact and document known to mankind, and none of it matters. They’re too busy chanting their mantras to stop and listen.”

She wasn’t necessarily surprised by the extent of denial about the presidential election. According to polls, a third of U.S. congressional representatives and more than 60 percent of all registered Republican voters continue to believe President Biden was falsely elected, and even Elgan had wondered about the potential for fraud in other swing states like Georgia or Ohio. She understood how conspiracy theories could grow in places of ignorance — how people could come to doubt or even distrust faraway systems and strangers — but many of the names on the petition were ones she recognized as her friends. “A lot of these people really know me,” Elgan told Jewell, as she scanned again through the list.

One was a woman she played cribbage with on Saturday nights. Another was a friend of her husband’s who had voted to re-elect Elgan several times. Another was the county sheriff. Another was her next-door neighbor of nearly 30 years. And then there was Zakas, who had come to several of Elgan’s annual Thanksgiving dinners, asked for her pecan pie recipe and offered to give her a children’s book that Zakas wrote about “21 Great Demonstrations of Kindness.”

“What in the world happened to these people?” Elgan asked. “What kind of person could actually believe this nonsense?”

A few days later, Zakas grabbed her folder of voter registration lists and property maps and began another long trip on the two-lane roads of Esmeralda County. She had traveled more than 10,000 miles in the last three months to promote the recall, driving through dust storms and herds of wild horses to visit hundreds of voters and ask for their signatures. The county had an average of one resident for every four square miles, and some of them had moved to the rugged desert of western Nevada because they didn’t want to be found. A few of her trips ended at no trespassing signs riddled with bullet holes, or on roads that disappeared under snowbanks in the high Sierras. Other times, she found residents living in abandoned mining camps or trailers hidden down unmarked roads.

Now she turned toward Goldfield, a self-proclaimed “living ghost town” where the mine was shuttered and the historic hotel was open only for ghost tours by flashlight. She pulled to the side of the road and checked her list of voter addresses. “I could swear this house is supposed to be just beyond the junkyard,” she said.

She drove around for another minute and called a friend to ask for directions. “I don’t think that street exists,” she said. “But don’t worry. I’ll keep looking.”

She had tried finding easier ways to upend the county’s voting system after the 2020 election, when Trump lost Nevada by more than 33,000 votes and his campaign protested the result. “Donald Trump won after you account for fraud and irregularities,” one of his lawyers said at the time, and even though Nevada found no evidence of widespread fraud and the courts dismissed Trump’s lawsuits, Zakas decided to do her own digging. A career in public education had taught her to be skeptical of big government systems. She had taught seven different subjects to three separate grades while working at a country school — sometimes all at once in the same room — and when she didn’t trust the curriculum, she believed in writing her own. She was recently retired and widowed, and she started devoting more of her free time to learning about local politics as a rotating tour of election deniers came to speak in Esmeralda County.

She listened to a self-proclaimed cybersecurity expert from Colorado named Mark Cook, who claimed that voting machines could be hacked with a cellphone. She heard Jim Marchant, then the Republican nominee for Nevada’s secretary of state, say that Nevada’s election officials had been “installed by a deep state cabal.” She heard local Republican leaders say Dominion machines had stolen votes, even though Fox News had agreed to pay Dominion nearly $800 million to settle a lawsuit for spreading the same lies. And most of all she continued to listen to Trump as his election denialism intensified. “We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” he said during a Veterans Day speech in New Hampshire last year.

Zakas started sending emails to Esmeralda County commissioners about what she considered “potential vulnerabilities” for fraud heading into the 2024 election: fragile machines, faulty electronic counters, signatures that could be forged and poll workers who might be compromised. “We like it the old-fashioned way,” she said in one community meeting. “You should have to sign in, show your ID and vote on paper. Then it gets hand counted.”

“That process brings in all kinds of human error,” Elgan responded. “There’s tons of proof that machines are accurate and secure.”

The more Elgan defended the system, the more Zakas became convinced she was hiding something. Eventually, she decided to file recall petitions not just for Elgan but also for the county auditor and the district attorney. “What’s required is a complete and total house cleaning,” Zakas said.

Now she turned down a dirt road in Goldfield and stopped to visit a voter who was helping to support the recall, Sam Wise, one of the first doctors to live in Esmeralda County in decades. He’d worked at Stanford and then run a rehabilitation center in Las Vegas until he “got fed up with the bureaucratic takeover of medicine,” he said. He moved to Goldfield to distill whiskey and lost a close election for county commissioner in 2022 after running on what he called a “MEGA platform — to Make Esmeralda Great Again,” he said.

“We need to get rid of these criminals running our voting systems,” he told Zakas. “It’s like a slot machine that’s been rigged. We pull the lever, but they decide who wins.”

“I heard somewhere that Nevada’s a test case for manipulating the vote by 10 or 15 percent each year,” Zakas said.

“And it’s happening right under our noses,” Wise said.

“Who would have believed that Cindy — sweet Cindy, our Cindy — could be connected to the deep state umbilical cord?” Zakas asked.

She believed it only because she had experienced many similar revelations during the last few years, ever since she heeded Trump’s warnings about the “corrupt, lying mainstream media” and decided to disconnect her television. Her friends introduced her to far-right media platforms online like Mike Lindell’s Frank Speech and The Elijah List, where each day she listened to a rotation of self-proclaimed patriots, biblical prophets and also sometimes political figures like Lara Trump. They offered Zakas not only conspiratorial ideas but also the promise of a community that extended far beyond the loneliness of her house, with a grandfather clock ticking away in the living room and views out the window of an emptiness that stretched clear into California. Each day, something urgent was happening in the far corners of the internet — something big and dark and secret, and that knowledge fueled her days with both purpose and agency.

She came to believe, along with millions of others, that Covid was a creation of the federal government used to manipulate the public and steal elections; that two doses of the vaccine would make men infertile; that Trump had been anointed to lead a “government cleansing”; that fighting had already begun in underground military tunnels; that Trump’s election in 2024 was preordained by God; that he would return to power with loads of gold collected from other countries that had capitulated to his power; that, during his next term, Americans would have free electricity, zero income tax and “medbeds” powered by a secret technology that could harness natural energy to heal diseases and extend human life; and that the only thing standing in the way of this future was a deep state so malicious and vast that its roots extended all the way into tiny Esmeralda County.

“The whole idea for Cindy and the rest of them is to cripple Trump,” Zakas said.

“That little tyrant,” Wise said. “We have no idea how many votes they’re skimming.”

“But Cindy sure does,” Zakas said.

When their allegations weren’t forcing her out of bed with nausea late at night, or inducing another panic attack, or prompting her husband to search for real estate in California, Elgan sometimes found herself laughing at the sheer absurdity of the county’s transformation. For as long as she could remember, nobody had been interested in her job. She sometimes ran for re-election unopposed. “What does a clerk even do?” her friends sometimes asked. The county had such a nonchalant, trusting relationship with elections that once, after two candidates tied for commissioner in 2002, they settled the race by drawing from a deck of cards. But now two decades later, Elgan was being flooded by emails asking about the license plate numbers of her poll workers and the temperature data of her equipment storage room.

“MAJOR VIOLATION CONCERNS,” read the subject line of one recent email, which listed dozens of obscure legal statutes and codes. “NRS 293B.063, NRS 1960.264, NRS 1977.246,” and on and on it went.

“Thank you for your thoughtful request,” Elgan often replied. She kept her emails concise and factual, and increasingly she saved her unfiltered reactions for her phone calls with Nevada’s other election clerks, many of whom were navigating their own crises in the continued fallout of the 2020 election. Lander County commissioners had tried to seize the county’s own election equipment. Nye County had voted to count ballots partially by hand. Lyon, Elko and Lincoln Counties had put forward proposals to remove their Dominion machines. The election office in Clark County had been sent a threat letter with traces of fentanyl powder.

About half of the state’s election officials had quit or resigned since 2020, and several had been replaced by vocal election deniers. Jim Hindle, the new clerk in Story County, was awaiting a felony trial for allegedly trying to sign over Nevada’s six electoral votes to Trump in 2020, and now he oversaw election integrity in 2024.

“Welcome to another day at the center of the circus,” Elgan said one afternoon in May, on a phone call to Amy Burgans, the clerk in Douglas County.

“Are they still calling for your head on a stick?” Burgans asked. “What’s the latest with the recall petition?”

“We’ll confirm signatures at the courthouse next week and then make a ruling,” Elgan said. “The conspiracy theorists are coming out of the woodwork with their tinfoil hats.”

“I call them my Kool-Aid drinkers,” Burgans said.

She estimated that more than half of the 50,000 people in Douglas County belonged to that category. They believed that elections were rigged and that Biden had been fraudulently elected — and for a while Burgans had thought that, too. She had been working in an administrative job for the county during the 2020 election, and she listened to her family members spread conspiracy theories about Dominion machines and read a friend’s false Facebook posts about the thousands of dead people voting in Nevada.

Then the county clerk abruptly resigned, and the commissioners appointed Burgans to lead a voting system she didn’t trust. She devoted her first several months to learning about the state’s mandatory election safeguards: machine inspections, signature verifications and the certified canvass to confirm each vote. “The reality is Trump lost,” she eventually concluded. “I did a complete 180. Our elections are more accurate and secure than ever before in American history.”

The challenge was convincing anyone else. She offered public tours of the county’s voting machines and live-streamed the counting of each mail-in-ballot, but almost nobody bothered to watch. Her best friend continued to send her videos of people lambasting Dominion machines. Her father and two of her adult children said they still didn’t entirely trust elections. In the 2022 midterm, one voter sent in his ballot with a death threat written to Burgans, and now the county sheriff was keeping an eye on her house.

“This job is hard enough without everyone throwing us under the bus,” Burgans said. “The responsibility to get it right, the scrutiny — we already feel the weight of our entire democracy.”

“And meanwhile they just repeat the same lies over and over,” Elgan said. “Eventually people go: ‘Oh, I think I heard that somewhere before. I guess it must be true.’”

“The only thing we have to give in return are facts,” Burgans said.

Elgan had also tried to offer her constituents a series of concessions. She updated the county’s Dominion system so that all voters were given a verifiable printed ballot and four chances to double-check their vote before it was cast. The county commissioners asked to confirm the electronic results in 2022 by recounting all ballots by hand, and she reluctantly agreed. They asked her to swear that her recount was accurate, and she swore. They decided they still didn’t trust her results and voted to recount a third time, a seven-hour process that confirmed the exact tallies and brought the county within minutes of missing the state’s deadline to certify elections.

Voters had pushed for her dismissal based on term limits that didn’t apply to her position. They had asked all three women who worked in her office to replace her as the clerk, but none felt qualified.

“Some days, I drive home after work and I wonder why I’m still doing this,” she said. Her job was one of the lowest-paid elected positions in Nevada. Her husband was already retired, and they had grandchildren in California. “I believe in my bones that we have to protect the integrity of our process, but if I’m recalled because of all this, I’ll survive,” she said.

“Of course you will,” Burgans said. “But if the whole system gives way to disinformation and lies, what’s left to protect?”

On the morning of the recall verification, Zakas came to the courthouse with her friend Theresa Moller, chair of the local Republican Party. They sat in the galley and said a prayer: “Let today be earth moving,” Zakas said. “Let the ripples stretch far and wide.”

A representative from the secretary of state’s office and the clerk from neighboring Nye County arrived to help run the process, and Elgan carried the recall petitions to a table at the front of the courtroom.

“Let’s go over some basic ground rules first,” said Cori Freidhof, the Nye County clerk.

The petition against Elgan required at least 114 signatures to force a recall election, because that number represented a quarter of Esmeralda County residents who voted in 2022. The petition had been submitted with 142 names, but each person’s information needed to be verified against the signature and address that the county had on file.

“So today, we’re checking those signatures, and you’re here just to witness,” Elgan told Zakas and Moller. “You’re not here to debate or interject. There’s an official process that needs to be followed, and we have to trust that process.”

“There’s more to it than trust,” Zakas said. “Will I get to know which signatures you are accepting and which ones you are tossing off?”

“Not today,” Elgan said.

“I don’t like the secret part. Why don’t I get my basic right to know what is happening with the recall?”

“You are just here to witness,” Elgan said again.

They started checking the petitions, first for the district attorney and then for the auditor. When they started working on Elgan’s petition, she volunteered to walk away from the table and sit in the galley. “Seeing all those names again, I think I’ll just go back there and pray,” she said. She walked past Zakas and Moller, sat in the far corner of the courtroom with her husband and pulled up Psalm 86 on her cellphone. “Oh God, the proud have risen against me,” she read, as Freidhof began to check the names on her petition one by one.

“Number 13, the address doesn’t match,” Freidhof said. “We need to verify.”

“Number 18, no,” she said. “We need to verify the signature.”

They paused at one point for a bathroom break, and Freidhof instructed everyone to clear the room except for one administrator from the clerk’s office who would guard the petitions. “Something fishy is happening,” Zakas said, as she walked into the hallway. “That woman could be tampering with signatures right now and we’d never know.” She turned back into the courtroom to watch, which made the employee feel uncomfortable.

“I’d like to remind everyone that it’s now considered a felony in Nevada to intimidate election workers,” Freidhof said a few minutes later as people filtered back into the room, and then she returned her attention to the signatures.

“Number 28, we need to verify the address.”

“Number 32, signature.”

“Number 38, address.”

Zakas wrote notes in case she needed evidence for a future appeal and rubbed essential oils on her wrists to stay calm. Maybe the addresses were wrong because people had gotten confused and written down their P.O. boxes instead of their physical street address, she thought. Maybe some of the signatures didn’t match because people’s handwriting deteriorated with age, or because younger voters had never learned how to sign their names in cursive.

“We knew they weren’t going to make it easy,” Zakas whispered to Moller. “God might have a different plan. You don’t have to knock the bull off its feet all at once. He might want this to go all the way up through appeals to the first district court.”

By the time Freidhof finished examining the petition, she had questions about 67 of the 142 signatures. One petition contained a potential fact error on the affidavit, and a notary had signed on the wrong line of the form. It was clear the recall petition would be ruled insufficient.

“That concludes our process,” Freidhof said.

“Well, not quite,” Zakas said.

She sorted through the papers in her lap, looking up laws and state statutes and then writing down the numbers of obscure legal codes. There were still six months left until the next presidential election was held in Esmeralda County, and already she was thinking of new ways to dismantle a process she didn’t trust.

“I know my rights,” she said.

“There are procedures in place you can still pursue,” Elgan said. “If you don’t like what’s happening, you have the right to appeal.”

“I’m aware,” Zakas said. “And I will.”

Erin Schaff contributed reporting.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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