Anti-gerrymandering group asks governor to suspend rules on signature collection

Request met with ‘crickets’

redistricting projection
Partial screengrab of an interactive map showing population changes in Nevada and how they affect political districts.

The group behind a proposed ballot initiative to curb partisan gerrymandering are urging Gov. Steve Sisolak to suspend rules on signature collection during the coronavirus pandemic.

Their request has so far been ignored.

Fair Maps Nevada is proposing a constitutional amendment that takes the power and responsibility of redrawing political boundary lines away from the Nevada Legislature and creates an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission.

The group must collect 97,598  signatures from registered voters by August 3 in order to appear on the general election ballot this November. That deadline was originally mid-June but was extended six weeks by a federal judge after Fair Maps Nevada sued the state and successfully argued that the statewide stay-at-home order made signature gathering essentially impossible.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court, Fair Maps Nevada had planned on hiring circulators to gather signatures beginning in April.

Nevada is one of 18 states that requires petition circulators to swear via a notarized affidavit they personally witnessed each registered voter sign the petition. That typically requires the signature gatherers to get relatively close to many people — the opposite of what public health experts want people to do during a pandemic.

In court, Fair Maps Nevada also asked for the physical witnessing requirement to be temporarily suspended in light of the pandemic. They proposed using the state’s existing online voter registration system to electronically gather signatures instead. On that issue, Judge Miranda Du ruled it was not the court’s place to compel the secretary of state to change the election process.

But the governor could, argues Sondra Cosgrove.

Cosgrove is president of the Nevada chapter of the League of Women Voters, one of the groups leading redistricting reform efforts across the country. She points to all the directives the governor has signed using emergency powers granted to him in state law. He loosened hiring restrictions for the unemployment department as it buckled under the pressure of a tsunami of claims. He extended deadlines for legal proceedings, permits and licenses. He suspended the requirement that there must be a physical location for meetings of public bodies.

“All he has to do is allow us to use what the state has been using for 10 years,” says Cosgrove, referring to the state’s online voter registration system which she says could accommodate electronic signature gathering. “We’re not asking for a new process or program.”

More broadly, Cosgrove points to this month’s successful mostly-mail primary, which included an electronic signature curing option for voters whose ballots were flagged as invalid.

“Why is it that when they want people to vote for their candidates, electronic signatures are perfectly okay? But when we want to use a program they are already using, one that everyone recognizes as valid, we get crickets?”

Cosgrove is happy to answer her own question, saying the Nevada Democratic Party doesn’t want to give up its power to redraw the political boundaries to favor them, something that should be easier to do this redistricting cycle because they currently control the governorship and Legislature. She notes that across the country whichever political party is in control opposes redistricting reform.

“The Democrats think we’re working for the Republicans. The Republicans think we’re working for the Democrats. We must be doing something right.”

Notably, the Nevada Resorts Association filed a motion to intervene in the Fair Maps Nevada lawsuit on the grounds they oppose allowing electronic signature collection. They also opposed the deadline extension. The casino industry is being targeted by the Clark County Education Association in a separate petition initiative aimed at raising gaming taxes to fund education.

Fair Maps Nevada first submitted their request to the governor for an executive order suspending the physical requirement for signature collection on June 6. They did so electronically and through a hand-delivered letter.

Cosgrove says they have received no response or acknowledgement of their issue — not even a “he will consider it” platitude.

A request sent by the Current to the governor’s office for a comment or response was similarly ignored.

“I want to know why. If he’s going to say no, say no and tell me why,” adds Cosgrove. “If he wants to respond and say no and give the legal reasons, then great. At least let me look at what you’re saying.”

If Sisolak opts not to issue an executive order allowing for electronic signature gathering during the pandemic, Cosgrove says their anti-gerrymandering effort will have to pivot quickly to relying on petition circulators with personal protective equipment and promoting drive-up or other events that adhere to current social distancing guidelines.

“We have been so hesitant to doing it,” she adds. “We don’t want to put people at risk.”

A sister initiative in Arkansas has faced similar hurdles. A federal judge there ruled in favor of waiving the state’s physical witnessing and notarizing requirement due to the circumstances of the pandemic, but the ruling was immediately appealed and an administrative stay was granted — meaning the group was once again limited to in-person signature collection. Arkansas Voters First has responded by hosting “drive and sign” events where people can pull up to a PPE-clad circulator and sign the petition.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, which does not have the physical witnessing requirement, the petition has been mailed to more than a million voters in advance of its signature collection deadline early next month. In a press call with advocates from several states, Common Cause Oregon Executive Director Katie Titus said the group is receiving “tens of thousands” of signatures daily.

In at least one state — Oklahoma — organizers have conceded that the barriers are likely too great to overcome.

“It’s a tall order,” said Andy Moore of People Not Politicians. “I wish we could. If we can’t get it done this year, we are (still) committed to getting it done. Democrats gerrymandered for 100 years. Republicans for the last 20. We think it’s time to end that.”

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.