Election officials: State needs to act fast if it wants a smooth election in November

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The Paradise Recreation Center in Clark County on the day of June's primary election. (Nevada Current file photo)

Some of the nonpartisan officials who run Nevada’s elections are quietly concerned that the window of time for making big decisions about the upcoming November election is rapidly closing.

Advocates and some lawmakers have been pushing for election issues to be addressed via special session since the rumblings of one happening began. The issue did not make the cut for the 31st Special Session, which ran July 8 – 19 and focused almost exclusively on balancing the state budget. It made the cut for the 32nd Special Session, which was announced Thursday night and begins Friday morning.

However, given the variety of high-profile topics included in the proclamation and the increasingly partisan bickering over anything related to the general election, there is uncertainty among election officials about how quickly the Nevada Legislature will act. And that has the potential to cause logistical issues.

“We are getting down to the wire,” says Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley, who oversees all of the state’s elections. “If they want to do something significant, every day makes it that much more difficult. It’s concerning.”

At the forefront of the conversation is a potential switch to a vote-by-mail election. Clark County’s top election official has already publicly stated he wants to mail ballots to every active registered voter in his county, but Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has independently stated she does not support any switch and would deny any county’s request to do so.

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula says she does not have a preference for how her county runs its election.

“We just need to know what to do,” she says. “We just need the direction.  That’s my main concern. We should have already been moving things along.”

Spikula says her department is currently planning for everything — vote by mail, in-person voting, ballot drop-off locations, etc — but they don’t have the resources or luxury of doing that for much longer.

That is particularly true of the vote-by-mail option.

“Our vendors can’t wait,” says Spikula. “They need to get that going.”

There are multiple steps involved when it comes to printing and delivering absentee ballots. Envelopes need to be printed first. Ballots, secrecy envelopes and other related material have to be printed and inserted into those envelopes. Things have to be delivered. All of that takes time, explained both election officials.

“There are a few major players in the ballot printing world,” says Thorley. “They’ve let states know that, given that most states are seeing significant increases in numbers, that they could run into a capacity issue.”

California announced its statewide switch to vote-by-mail in early May. Voting advocates began stressing the need for states to make the switch even before then.

Adds Thorley: “I don’t know the drop dead date but it’s soon.”

He explains that federal law requires counties to have absentee ballots in the mail for military and overseas voters 45 days before any election. This year that means Sept. 19.

“You can work backwards from that,” says Thorley. “How much lead time, how much time to do ballot insertion, to drop them off… I don’t know the specific time but it’s soon.”

Spikula expressed a similar sentiment: “The more we delay, the harder it is for (vendors) to fulfill their obligation to us.”

Washoe, the second most populous county in the state, would need approximately 300,000 mail ballots. They typically print somewhere between a third or a half of that amount.

Spikula on Thursday estimated there was only about a week of wiggle room before her county needed to pick a plan and start implementing it.

Nevada as a whole has 1.6 million active registered voters. Approximately 70 percent are in Clark County.

Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria declined to be interviewed by the Current. In brief written responses received through the county’s public information office, Gloria downplayed any logistical issues.

“We have been working with the vendor we used for the primary to be prepared for this,” he said.

In response to a question about what timeline the county needed for a potential switch to an all-mail ballot general election, Gloria responded: “Ideally, we will know by the end of August.”

Myriad concerns

Gloria made his recommendation for the upcoming general election clear in an update to Clark County Commissioners on June 19: “I feel it would be a very good move for us to continue all-mail ballots.”

He outlined a proposed plan that would send ballots to all active registered voters within the county, as well as offer 35 early voting locations and 159 physical locations on election day. Then, he asked the commissioners whether they would support his recommended plan as he presented it to the Secretary of State, who would need to authorize the switch to all-mail ballots.

Commissioner Tick Segerblom expressed an eagerness to agendize as soon as possible a formal vote in support of switching the county to an all-mail ballot, but overall the urgency to act fell short. Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick noted that nobody knew yet what the special session would cover and maybe they should wait to see how that played out.

On July 7, Gloria went before the commission again to give an update on changes to the county’s early voting plan, which he does have authority to adjust. Commissioner Justin Jones asked if Gloria’s intent was still to send ballots to all active registered voters.

Gloria responded that he lacked that authority, but if he was permitted, he would.

Segerblom said he had spoken to several state lawmakers to emphasize that allowing for a switch to all-mail ballots was his “number one priority” for a special session.

Cegavske confirmed to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on July 21 that she still intends to return to the traditional, in-person format for the November election. A week later, she elaborated on her position in an opinion piece in The Nevada Independent, writing that “we are no longer in an emergency situation, and those who believe we are need to look up the definition of emergency.”

In her piece, she defends the state’s current voting laws, which allow voters to request an absentee ballot with limited barriers. Some states limit the reasons people can use to request an absentee ballot or require you to have the signature on your ballot officially notarized.

The Brookings Institution analyzed what states are doing to expand access and improve the process of voting by absentee ballot or by a universal vote-by-mail system. Nevada received a B.

Cevagske also indicated there are plans underway to unveil an online form for requesting an absentee ballot. Currently, voters must print out a form and send it to their appropriate elections department.

Back in June, Gloria told Clark County Commissioners he was concerned about receiving a high volume of absentee ballot requests. He said voter groups had informed him they plan on sending absentee ballot request forms to voters en masse, which Gloria worried would cause confusion.

“(People) might think their voter registration has been canceled,” he said. “If they use it and send it in, (processing) it will be a huge burden manually.”

By law absentee ballots can be requested up to 14 calendar days prior to the election. (That’s Oct. 20 this year.)

There are other concerns, too.

The majority of vote center workers are older in age, meaning they are considered at high risk for complications and death if they contract Covid-19. Not surprisingly, many of the people who regularly work elections have decided to sit this general out.

“They can’t risk getting ill,” says Spikula. “That’s completely understandable.”

Washoe’s elections department has done outreach to less vulnerable populations, such as college-age students, who may be willing and able to be a temporary election worker this fall. The process of hiring is already underway and training will be done online and in small, socially distant physical settings.

In his emailed response to questions, Gloria did not elaborate on the existing staffing needs, writing only: “It is an ongoing effort. We still need workers.”

Election officials are also adapting to changes with their vote centers locations and setups.

Spikula says many of the retailers who are traditionally happy to serve as vote centers are declining this year over concerns about the ability to ensure proper social distancing and the mandatory occupancy reductions in place statewide. Many offered to serve as mail-in ballot drop off locations instead.

Again Spikula says it’s an understandable position to take.

She just wants to know what to tell them.

Meanwhile, Gloria told the Clark County Commission back in June that one of the most popular early voting locations — the Galleria Mall — had already requested moving its voting machines outside because it believed its corporate office would not allow them to set up indoors. Gloria plans to rent tents and move that vote center and two other mall locations outdoors. Many other retail locations simply don’t have the capacity to adjust their vote centers to be outdoors or maintain social distancing. The county will pivot to more heavily relying on government-owned facilities such as recreation centers they can better control.

Following high participation during this year’s primary election, Gloria told Clark County commissioners he expects a 90 percent turnout this November.

The general election in 2016 saw a statewide voter turnout of 76.8 percent. In 2008 and 2012, the statewide turnout rate was 80.3 percent and 81 percent, respectively.

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.