Automatic voter registration is set to start in January 2020, and while legislators believe it’s an important step in broadening voting accessibility advocates are cautious of potential pitfalls.
“What about people who do not have citizenship status? Are there safeguards in place so they don’t accidentally vote?” asked an advocate with Make the Road Nevada during a Latino Legislative panel. “People might not know the repercussions and consequences of filling that paperwork out.”
In 2018, Nevadans approved a ballot measure to make voter registration automatic when a person applies for an identification card or a driver’s license.
And after the last legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed into law Assembly Bill 345 which requires Nevada residents to check a box to affirmatively decline voter registration instead of the former opt-in system.
The law also states that failing to return the form declining voter registration to the DMV counts as consent for the DMV to transmit a persons voter registration information to the county clerk for verification.
A working group made up of representatives of the Secretary of State’s office, Department of Motor Vehicles and county registrars is working to establish standards to implement automatic voter registration and has actively sought input from advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Mi Familia Vota to ensure that the law does not lead to ineligible voters unintentionally registering and being charged with election fraud.
“I was a public defender for seven and a half years and I’m a D.A. now. I would not dare to say it would never happen,” said Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, a Democrat, who was a primary sponsor of the bill. “We did a lot of work on criminal justice reform because we don’t trust always that [prosecutors are] going to exercise their discretion in a reasonable way.”
“It happens more often than you’d think,” said Ariel Guvara, the state coordinator for Mi Famila Vota in Nevada. “What we want to make sure — and what we want to do as a community — is to ensure there is no penalty for being accidentally signed up to register to vote. We want to make sure that there is a system in place with the DMV that prevents that in the first place.”
Guvara said work to educate the public has already started with more efforts planned in the future.
“We are speaking to the Attorney General’s office, we are speaking to the Secretary of State and we’re devising strategies to ensure that there are fair practices being put into place to prevent that sort of thing in the first place, and also to be more lenient and forgiving to folks that have that issue.”
Part of that process will include a requirement to provide multiple forms of documentation at the DMV when transferring or applying for a driver’s license in order to determine eligibility. County officials are the ones who determine whether an applicant is qualified and complete the actual registration.
Frierson said he’s keeping a close eye on the implementation of the law. The legislature has worked closely with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office and county clerks “to make sure they are able to distinguish between voter fraud and simple mistakes.”
“All the local counties and cities have been very supportive of implementing this in a reasonable way,” Frierson said. “I believe that we’ve made legislation clear enough to make certain that it is not considered a criminal offense.”
According to the law, if a voting application is submitted through the DMV and a county clerk determines the applicant is not eligible to vote, the applicants “voter registration information shall be deemed not to be a complete application to register to vote and that person shall be deemed not to have applied to register to vote.”
Wayne Thorley the Deputy Secretary of State for Elections, says this section of the law would shield an applicant from any penalties, criminal or civil by effectively erasing the application to register to vote.
“We know there are individuals who accidentally register to vote not fully understanding what they’re doing,” Thorley said. “There may be a language barrier. There’s a lot of reasons that a person might accidentally register to vote, and my understanding is that’s the reasoning behind that section. They want to protect those who made honest mistakes from any sort of penalties.”
At the same time, Thorley says, the broad language could also protect willful violators of the state’s voter registration requirements.
“We also know there are bad actors. There are those that willfully break the law and we want to be able to go after those that willfully break the law and this section, unfortunately, prohibits us from doing that,” Thorley said. He added that it would prevent the Secretary of State’s office from performing its statutory duty of enforcing state election law.
Thorley said the Secretary of State’s office was not allocated separate funding by the legislature for an outreach or educational campaign and will have to figure out internally what the office can do to inform the public about the new law with available resources.
A spokesperson in Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office said via email the office’s role with respect to the legislation “is limited to an attorney-client relationship, and we are therefore unable to provide an opinion on this topic.”
The office will work with the Secretary of State’s office and the DMV “to ensure all systems in place will protect the ability for eligible Nevadans to be able to vote,” said Monica Moazes, communications director in the AG’s office.
Frierson meanwhile says state officials are working on a campaign to educate the public to minimize the number of ineligible people who register to vote.
“The DMV has a robust training program to implement new laws and procedures,” said Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the DMV. “The existing voter registration training will be updated to reflect the new requirements.”
(This story has been updated to include a statement from the Attorney General’s office.)