Nevada Dems push for changes to upcoming all-mail primary

… and secretary of state pushes back

On Wisconsin
Voters wearing masks wait in line to vote in Milwaukee's April 7 primary. Only staff five polling sites out of 180 were staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner)

Nevada Democrats are concerned the state’s implementation of an all-mail ballot for the upcoming June 9 primary elections will hurt voter turnout, particularly among already disenfranchised communities.

The Nevada State Democratic Party through its attorneys sent a letter on Friday to Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske pushing for specific changes to the state’s all-mail primary election plan, including offering more in-person options, mailing ballots to all registered voters rather than only active voters, and extending the time given for correcting ballots rejected for missing signatures. The letter argues the changes should be made “to ensure as many registered Nevada voters as possible can cast a completed ballot” and “to avoid litigation on these issues.”

Cegavske, one of the lone Republicans currently holding a statewide office in Nevada, has already pushed back against the measures proposed within the letter.

“The Nevada State Democratic Party asks me to ignore laws that were enacted by the Nevada Legislature,” she said in a statement provided by her office. “We are a nation of laws. My job … is to faithfully execute and enforce state election laws as written.”

The statement further says the decision to conduct an all-mail election “was not made lightly” and that the policies currently in place “are supported by all 17 county election officials and exist to ensure state and local election officials can properly and lawfully administer the election while protecting the right to vote and ensuring the health and safety of voters and election workers during this unprecedented time.”

Cegavske’s office announced late last month the state would conduct the June 9 primary elections entirely by mail. Training for thousands of poll workers was scheduled to begin in late March or early April — a time when group gatherings were prohibited amid a slew of social distancing orders passed by the governor.

Friday’s letter was sent by attorney Marc Erik Elias of Perkins Coie, a national expert on voting rights laws who represents high-profile political clients, including the Democratic National Committee. Local attorney Bradley Schrager of Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin is also representing.

The cost of ‘inactive’ voters

The current plan for Nevada’s all-mail primary involves all active registered voters automatically receiving an absentee ballot, which they can fill out, sign and return through the mail via a prepaid envelope or in-person at a designated drop-off location. In their letter, Nevada Democrats argue this is a violation of state law, which makes no distinction between active and inactive voters.

The Secretary of State’s office has said that “at least one in-person polling location will be available in each county” on election day in order to accommodate same-day voter registration and to assist anyone who has issues with the ballot mailed to them. Election officials also clarified to The Nevada Independent last week that “extremely limited” early voting options will be available because of a state law requiring them.

Nevada Democrats are pushing the state to require more than one open polling place per county, arguing they will be necessary to ensure overcrowding doesn’t occur and put people at risk, which is exactly what happened during Wisconsin’s primary last week.

In her statement, Cegavske said operating additional polling places would create logistical and staffing challenges and increase the risk of spreading coronavirus. “Furthermore,” she added, “sending a mail ballot to inactive voters would increase printing and mailing costs and result in a significant amount of undeliverable ballots.”

Nevada Democrats say more than 250,000 registered voters are considered inactive by the state. A voter is considered inactive if they fail to update their address with the state elections department after moving — something the state catches at the beginning of every federal election year, when the election department sends out registration cards via the United States Postal Service. Inactive voters are still eligible to vote so long as they still reside within the state, but they are no longer sent election-related mail.

Democrats are also calling for Cegavske and Attorney General Aaron Ford to announce the suspension of prosecutions for breaking a state law that makes it illegal for anyone other than the voter or a member of the voter’s family to return an absentee ballot. The letter argues that because of the social distancing measures currently in place, many people are separated from their families and may have difficulties returning their ballot under existing law.

In her statement, Cegavske called that particular statute a “long-standing voter integrity provision.” She described the statute as a “restriction on ballot harvesting,” using a term with negative connotations that refers to the practice of collecting and returning absentee ballots en masse. (Opponents of that statute and ones similar to it describe such laws as “voter assistance bans.”) According to Ballotpedia, laws on who is permitted to return absentee ballots vary by state.

Nevada Democrats are also calling for an expansion of the “signature cure period” — a seven-day span when voters whose ballots were rejected because of a mismatched or missing signature have the opportunity to correct the issue and have their votes recognized. The letter also urges the suspension of all ballot rejections because of mismatched signatures, saying that workers lack the expertise to properly match signatures.

In her statement, Cegavske notes the signature cure period includes a hard deadline set in statute.

“The June primary will be an unprecedented election for Nevada voters,” concludes the Nevada Democrats’ letter to the secretary of state, “and every decision by your office must be made with the goal of allowing the maximum number of registered Nevada voters to participate fully.”

Prior to the upcoming election, Nevada has allowed absentee ballots for anyone who formally requested them. In 2016, 10.5 percent votes were cast through absentee ballots. The majority of Nevada voters prefer casting their ballots in-person during the state’s expansive early voting period.

A national issue, and November

Nevada isn’t alone in their attempt to adjust their election process to meet the circumstances of a pandemic. As the COVID-19 virus continues to sweep the country, voting rights advocates are demanding Congress fully fund a national vote-by-mail program so people aren’t forced to choose between their health and their right to vote.

The voting debacle in Wisconsin offered a cautionary tale for other states grappling with how to vote during a pandemic.

When Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled their April 7 election could not be postponed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to give absentee voters more time, people were forced to risk their health in order to vote. In hard hit, predominantly black areas, like Milwaukee, a shortage of poll workers led to further crowding at fewer polls, disproportionately impacting populations that are already more vulnerable to the virus.

Lawmakers and advocates took to Twitter to demand vote-by-mail. “This is an outrage. Americans need #VoteByMail,” wrote Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.

California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff wrote: “We need to be prepared for easy and secure vote by mail everywhere in November. It’s non negotiable.”

But remote voting doesn’t work for many with disabilities, those who require assistance reading, those without a permanent address, Native populations without reliable mail delivery, many with limited English, and still others who have a historic distrust of the system.

Allison Riggs, chief voting counsel for Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that during the Jim Crow era, it was not uncommon for black voters’ registration and ballots to be stolen.

“That was the white supremacy machine getting rid of black votes,” she said. “That’s a lasting scar and trauma that is part of the reason historically in the South, black voters have tended to prefer in person voting.”

Sam Berger, the vice president of democracy and government reform for the Center for American Progress, said there are a number of common steps officials across the country can take to ensure elections are safe and yield stable voter turnout.

“It’s not that they’re easy. They’re complicated and take time and resources. But we know what they are,” he said. “Vote by mail, and at the same time, maintain in-person options and expand them.”

Congress allotted $400 million for voting administration in its last COVID-19 relief bill, billions short of what advocates say is needed. In a preliminary calculation, the Brennan Center estimated it would cost $2 billion to ensure safe, enfranchised voting.

Another problem, Berger said, is that the pandemic is playing into broader voting-related politics.

At a press conference last week, President Donald Trump called voting by mail “horrible” and “corrupt.” When a reporter pointed out that Trump had voted by mail in the last election, the president said, it was “because I’m allowed to.”

Trump later clarified in a Tweet that voting by mail is fine for members of the military and senior citizens, but is “ripe for fraud” for others.

On Tuesday, Trump took aim at so-called “ballot harvesting” and called for voter identification, which advocates have characterized as voter suppression.

While states work to expand voting options during the pandemic, many advocates are urging officials to keep in mind people who cannot vote by mail.

“As we are looking at options, we need to include options that work for the disability community, people with language access issues, native populations, and others who might not have a permanent address,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause.

“Those people who cannot be forgotten in our rush to find a perfect fix.”

Kat Calvin is the founder of Spread of the Vote, a group that works to help the large population of American citizens without proof of identification, about 11 percent of eligible voters, obtain government-issued IDs in order to exercise their right to vote. She said many of the people she works with are unhoused and do not have access to the internet.

“So what happens if it is all vote by mail? How do we help our clients?” she said. “If we have to do virtual education, can we ship a laptop to one of our shelter partners? But we can’t have a bunch of people crowded in a room around a computer. Can I put on a hazmat suit and pick up some ballots for them?”

Calvin said vote-by-mail should be part of a comprehensive voting package, but it’s not “a panacea.”

Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said language barriers are a main driver for a consistent turnout gap between Asian American voters and white voters, and the confusion caused by the pandemic — in combination with xenophobic harassment and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans — is only making matters worse.

“It is possible this harmful sentiment spills over into the voting context where we have already seen discrimination against Asian Americans because of false perceptions of the ‘perpetual foreigner,’” she said. “We may see an increase in unfounded challenges to Asian American voters for simply being Asian or we could even see an increase in attacks against Asian Americans seeking to vote.”

Voting rights advocates agree that while conducting primaries during the pandemic is complicated, politically fraught, and logistically frustrating, it is necessary to ensure the funds are secured and the kinks are worked out before the general election in November.

“Everyone kind of needs to pony up right now,” Riggs said. “If our democracy dies during this pandemic in addition to thousands of Americans, it’s really game over.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.
Arianna Skibell
Arianna Skibell is a Washington-based correspondent for States Newsroom.