A spate of election bills are moving through the legislative session in its last week.
Chief among them is an attempt to make Nevada the first state to hold a presidential primary. The others would make permanent the all-mail ballot system used during elections last year, create a “top-down” centralized voter database, and require ballots to include a straight-ticket voting option.
Assembly Bill 126 would replace the state’s current party-run presidential caucuses with state-run primary elections, and it would place those contests on the first Tuesday of February. It’s an attempt to position Nevada as the first state to formally weigh in on the presidential nomination process.
“Nevada has consistently punched above our weight when it comes to elevating the issues we experience everyday,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Clark) said. “From addressing racial justice, climate change, staunchly working to expand voting rights, our voices are diverse and better reflect the rest of the country than the current nominating structure, and it’s time for Nevada to take its rightful place as (the first in the nation).”
During the 2020 cycle, Nevada Democrats marketed itself as “First in the West.” Although he placed second behind Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden’s strong showing in Nevada after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire helped solidify a “comeback king” narrative that helped propel him to the Democratic nomination and eventually into the White House.
Frierson described Nevada as “small enough and manageable enough” for presidential candidates “to make their case to the kind of constituency that is ultimately going to elect our next president.”
Whether Nevada will actually be able to move ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nomination process is a separate issue altogether. Specifically, New Hampshire law states that their primary must be scheduled for a date before any other state’s primary. Republican opponents called Nevada’s attempt to become first “an impossible goal” and a waste of public money.
The Nevada Secretary of the State office estimates the cost of holding presidential primaries at $5.2 million each cycle.
Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Clark) took issue with that fiscal note’s inclusion because it would not apply to the upcoming biennium budget. The next presidential election is in 2024, so it will fall into the biennium budget set by the 2023 Legislature.
Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said she wasn’t offended by the fiscal note because “this is the direction we need to go in.”
She added, “I am affectionately attached to our caucus system but also know it’s time to evolve and move on.”
AB126 passed the Ways and Means Committee late Tuesday and is now headed to the full Assembly for a vote. It’s expected to pass easily.
Nevada lawmakers during a special session last summer passed a bill (AB4) requiring counties to send mail ballots to all active registered voters in the 2020 general election, in addition to offering in-person vote centers. Now, Democrats are seeking to make mailed ballots permanent with Assembly Bill 321.
Or as Republicans have dubbed it: “AB4-Ever.”
Tuesday morning’s discussion in Ways and Means on AB321, which is sponsored by Frierson and Benitez-Thompson, focused on a $5.2 million per year fiscal note submitted by the Secretary of State’s office.
Frierson suggested the perceived price tag was unrealistically high, noting that the state spent $3.9 million on last year’s all-mail general election.
“It doesn’t line up,” he said.
Deputy Secretary of State Mark Wlaschin told the committee the bill would bring additional costs with printing, buying more permanent ballot dropboxes, and conducting public outreach to educate voters on the change. He added that the $3.9 million figure also didn’t include election costs that were captured by federal covid relief funds.
But by late Tuesday the numbers were realigned and AB321 was passed through the Ways and Means committee.
A third election bill, Assembly Bill 422 would create a centralized, top-down voter registration database. Frierson, who also presented the bill, said Nevada is one of only six states that have an “inherently slow” bottom-up voter registration system.
Nevada briefly found itself under the national spotlight on Election Day 2020 in what seemed at the time like a tight race. Nevada’s three electoral votes offered a path to victory — while other states national news outlets had already called awaited official results, anyway. Outside observers were frustrated by the pace at which Clark County and Nevada were releasing results, despite the fact that election officials had forewarned that nothing would be immediate.
Still, one of the hopes behind AB422 is that a centralized system will make it easier for the state to process ballots and announce results. It’s a feature that would no doubt help Nevada make its case for being the first-in-the-nation primary.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria said that while his office is officially neutral on the bill, there is “nothing more critical” than investing in a switch to a top-down voter registration system.
“No election official in the state of Nevada would tell you any different,” he said. “The top-down voter registration is necessary to give us the tools that we need to protect the integrity of the voting process, to improve our ability to clean the rolls, to improve our canvassing time period. Most everything that’s critical administratively in providing elections for the citizens of Nevada and Clark County tie into the ability to go to a top-down registration system.”
AB422 comes with a $9.2 million fiscal note submitted by the Secretary of State office. Frierson and Wlaschin noted that the state planned on using Help America Vote Act (HAVA) federal grant money to offset the expected cost.
AB422 passed out of the Ways and Means committee. It too is expected to easily pass.
Senate Bill 292, sponsored by state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Clark), would create a straight-party voting option on general election ballots. In other words, voters could in one bubble indicate they wish to vote for all the Democrats or all the Republican candidates on the ballot.
The law also specifies that, if a voter indicates they wish to vote straight-party but then selects a candidate of a different party within a specific race, the vote for the specific candidate would overrule the straight-party selection.
Lange told the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections the option would help down-ballot elections and make it easier for people to vote.
According to Democracy Docket, a election reform website founded by top Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias, straight-ticket voting is disproportionately used by minority voters in large urban areas who choose to vote a straight-ticket Democrat.
Opponents argued that such an option encourages civic laziness and doesn’t reflect the will of voters who are increasingly frustrated with both political parties. They point to current voter registration numbers as proof.
According to the Nevada Secretary of State, as of May 3, 35.8% of active registered voters in the state are Democrats, 31.3% are Republican, 25.1% are non-partisan and 7.8% are third party supporters.
SB292 received a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee.
Election reforms that died
Perhaps not surprisingly, Republican-sponsored election bills went nowhere this legislative session.
State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) sponsored three election reform efforts. None received a committee hearing. The first, Senate Joint Resolution 9 was a proposal to amend the Nevada Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission, taking away the power to draw the state’s political boundaries from state lawmakers. That resolution followed Vote Nevada’s unsuccessful attempt to gather enough signatures to have a citizen-driven initiative qualify for the 2020 ballot.
Kieckhefer also sponsored Senate Bill 256, which would have required the state to set up a system to accept electronic signature gathering for citizen-driven petitions. Vote Nevada pushed Gov. Steve Sisolak to issue an emergency directive allowing them to gather signatures electronically during the pandemic but their requests went unaddressed.
None of the bills were granted hearings.