Fifty days remain until Election Day; 33 until early voting begins.
Between now and then, Nevadans will be subjected to political campaigns and advertisements pushing not only the candidates and ballot initiatives but the act of civic engagement itself. Canvassers with clipboards will be approaching them in grocery store parking lots and going door-to-door: Are you registered to vote? Register to vote!
Voter registration drives are a staple of the election cycle here in Nevada, but they may become largely unnecessary if the Automatic Voter Registration via DMV Initiative, also known as Question 5, passes this November. The ballot initiative would move the state from an opt-in system (where someone must actively register to vote) to an opt-out system (where eligible citizens would automatically be registered when they go to the DMV to obtain or change information on their driver’s license or identification card).
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 12 states have already implemented automatic voter registration. When Oregon made the switch in 2016, voter registration jumped nearly 10 percent and turnout increased by 4 percent.
Advocates of automatic voter registration call it a non-partisan issue, noting that some of the states that have adopted or approved the practice are reliably red. Both Republican- and Democratic-led state legislatures and governors have supported the reform. However, when the issue was tackled by the Nevada Legislature during the 2017 legislative session, support was divided among party lines. Democrats supported an automatic voter registration bill, and because they control both the senate and assembly, it passed. Republicans legislators opposed the bill.
Then, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.
In his letter explaining the veto, he wrote that automatic voter registration “extinguishes a fundamental choice–the right of eligible voters to decide for themselves whether they desire to apply to register to vote.” He also raised concerns that automatic voter registration might result in ineligible people unintentionally applying, “subjecting them to possible criminal prosecution, fines, and other legal action.”
Advocates for automatic voter registration argue the DMV is better equipped to determine voter eligibility than the canvassers staked out in front of Smiths.
“What (this initiative) does is make the system more secure,” says Chelsey Wininger, the campaign manager for Nevadans for Secure Elections. “It drastically reduces errors. It really makes everything more efficient.”
The ACLU of Nevada is one of the supporters of the initiative and last week announced it’s committing $1.5 million toward the effort. It is the first time the organization has spent money on a ballot initiative, though it has long championed voter reforms (such as the automatic restoration of voter rights for felons).
ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story argues that making it easier and less confusing for people to register and keep their information updated is simply “a good thing for democracy.” He uses the example of registered voters who relocate within state. They may forget or overlook updating their voter registration because it’s not election season or because it can get forgotten amid so many other places where they need to update an address. Having the voter registration process built into the DMV experience streamlines things.
“We are for the universality of access, for it to be as easy, simple and secure as possible,” says Story. “That’s easier for us now because of the digital pollbooks we’re using in Nevada. We used to have paper poll books and have to shuffle through thousands of pages.”
Story adds that Nevada typically ranks high in voter-access and voter-technology. While the state doesn’t allow same-day voter registration, it doesn’t require ID at the polls and it has a healthy two-week window for early voting. This year, Clark County moved entirely to a “vote center” model where residents could cast ballots anywhere across the valley rather than at a dedicated polling place. (Prior to this year, vote centers were used during early voting but not on Election Day.) The state also allows absentee ballots to be requested and cast without an explanation–another measure used by organizations to determine ease of access.
Despite all that, Nevada typically lags several points behind the national average when it comes to voter turnout–even on its strong years.
Because voters are disproportionately older and whiter than the population of the country as a whole, and because minorities favor the Democratic Party, it is often assumed that increased voter registration would be a boon to Democrats.
But voter registration and voter turnout are separate issues, points out David Damore, a UNLV political science professor who studies national and local campaigns and elections. He says research suggests other types of voter reforms — like all-mail ballots, which a few states, including Oregon, have explored — led to initial surges in turnout but flattened out.
“The parties, they already do a good job of getting people out,” he says. “The people who are tied to parties get plenty of cues.”
Damore says the best predictors of voter turnout are age, residential stability and educational attainment. With Clark County known for transiency and an economy not reliant upon four-year degrees, Nevada doesn’t shore up well against those predictors.
“Politics is really ugly,” says Damore. “Why would I want to vote against the lesser of two evils? There’s not a huge uplifting message out there. There’s a lot of frustration of things not being solved. Schools aren’t improving. Taxes. Roads. There’s a lot of efficacy issues and that attitudinal stuff is really tough to get over.”
Advocates feel that, if nothing else, automatic voter registration shouldn’t hurt the number of people who cast ballots, but it could also be the spark that gets them engaged with the political process. All the time and money expended by political groups on voter registration might instead go toward voter engagement or education.
NextGen Nevada says its canvassers have registered approximately 6,800 voters.
On Sept. 22, former first lady Michelle Obama will headline what’s described as a “voter registration drive.”
The standard deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9.