Top election official says new legislation will improve system, expand access to NV voters

By: - July 11, 2023 5:18 am

Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar and Gov. Joe Lombardo conduct a ceremonial bill signing for Senate Bill 406, which aims to protect election workers from intimidation and violence. (Photo: Secretary of state’s office)

Axing Nevada’s embrace of universal mail ballots, implementing voter identification requirements and other highly political proposals may have been dead on arrival, but Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo and the Democratic-controlled state legislature found common ground on several pieces of election-related legislation.

The 2023 legislature passed — and the governor signed — bills to expand voting access on tribal lands and in jails, to protect election workers, and to invest in resources to help state and county administrators run elections more smoothly. And while the governor did veto a trio of election bills, the provisions of one of those are expected to be voluntarily embraced.

One of the most high profile election bills of this year’s session was Senate Bill 406, which fulfilled a campaign promise made by Democratic Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar to protect election workers from intimidation and election interference. SB 406 makes it a category E felony “to use or threaten or attempt to use any force, intimidation, coercion, violence, restraint or undue influence with the intent to interfere with the performance of duties of an elections official.”

The bill received unanimous bipartisan support from state lawmakers, but there has been some public pushback.

Sigal Chattah, a Republican who lost her 2022 attorney general race by the largest margin of all the statewide races that year, filed a lawsuit challenging the bill on behalf of three plaintiffs, one of whom is a virulent right-wing conspiracy theorist and regular GOP donor.

Aguilar this week declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but he has emphasized previously that he worked with county election officials, the attorney general’s office and other relevant people to draft legislation that protects workers but doesn’t infringe upon legitimate activities such as observing polling places or the ballot counting process.

“(The bill) was to tell volunteers and election workers, ‘We know it isn’t a glamorous job. We know it’s an important job. We need you. We’ll protect you. We have your back,’” said Aguilar.

Certain election officials will also be allowed to enter into the state’s Confidential Address Program, thanks to Assembly Bill 225. The Confidential Address Program was originally set up to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking hide their information on public records so they could not be found by perpetrators. Aguilar’s office sees that bill as an extension of the protections established in SB 406.

Uniformity across counties

One new law, established by Senate Bill 54, requires the secretary of state’s office to update its election manual every two years. Previously, there was no set schedule for updating the manual, and more than a decade passed before its most recent update.

SB 54 also requires routine training for county election officials.

Nevada has seen a high turnover rate of county election officials since 2020. Ten of the state’s 17 counties have a new top election official, according to Aguilar. Ensuring there is an up-to-date statewide election manual will help this new crop of election administrators, as well as any of their eventual predecessors.

“A lot of people don’t realize that outside of Clark and Washoe, clerks have other jobs,” added Aguilar. “They’re treasurers, assessors. A couple cycles ago they were able to divide their job — one-third, one-third, one-third. Now it’s 60% elections and they’re working really hard. This will help them.”

Another bill, Assembly Bill 192, requires all counties to have a uniform mail ballot — an effort Aguilar says will save the state money because the state can have one contract with a vendor. It will also keep the voting experience consistent for people who move intrastate.

What could be the most significant change for Nevada’s election process is the in-progress move to a statewide centralized voter registration system. Aguilar also said his office’s newly approved budget supports the “speedy implementation” of VREMS, or the Voter Registration and Elections Management Solution.

Nevada is one of only a few states that lacks a statewide voter registration database. Last year a state election administrator warned lawmakers they were not on track to meet a January 2024 deadline set by lawmakers in 2021. The administrator last year suggested it might take the state until 2026 to fully implement a top-down system.

Aguilar says his office is now on track to fully implement VREMS by March 2024 — after the presidential primaries, but ahead of the general election primary in June. It will allow all voters to track their ballots — “like you track your pizza on an app,” he explained. It will also help election administrators more easily clean up voter rolls with data from the United States Postal Service, the Office of Vital Statistics, and other agencies.

Aguilar added that VREMS should provide his office with better real-time information on Election Day wait times and the number of mail ballots left to be counted — data that is vital to delivering timely results from the swing state. He credited Lombardo and the legislature for being united with him in desire to improve the backend of the voting process.

Voter access expands

Senate Bill 216 and Senate Bill 327 increase voting access to tribal communities. The former sets requirements for communication between election officials and tribal communities, designed to ensure reservation-based vote centers are set up in a timely manner. The latter requires the state to set up those reservation-based vote centers unless the tribal nation opts out.

The tribal-led legislation comes after an election cycle that saw tribal nations nearly shutout from having physical vote centers due to issues with county election officials.

Voting access was also expanded to voters who are in jail awaiting trial. Assembly Bill 286 mandates that election officials and sheriffs provide voting access for those people, who still have a right to vote.

But it wasn’t all good news for voting access advocates: One effort to expand voter access was derailed by the governor. Lombardo vetoed Assembly Bill 246, which would have mandated Spanish language voting statewide and expanded Chinese-Mandarin language voting in Clark County.

In his veto message, Lombardo wrote that Nevada laws “sufficiently accomplish the goal of ensuring language accessibility in accordance with Federal law.”

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Justice determines voting language access requirements for each county based on demographic data collected by the Census. States and municipalities have the freedom to provide voting materials in additional languages beyond those required. In 2021, Clark County missed the cutoff threshold for required Chinese translation by fewer than 500 people.

Groups like the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC) have pushed the county to proactively expand access prior to being federally required to. According to Kerry Durmick, the Nevada state director of All Voting Is Local, Clark County has already committed to expanding language access to Chinese-American voters in the 2024 election cycle.

However, there is no similar commitment from rural counties to offer Spanish language voting, so Durmick says the veto was still “heartbreaking.”

“There are voters out there who will not be able to vote due to that veto,” she added.

Other election vetoes

State Sen. Skip Daly (D-Sparks) sponsored a bill to make creating, conspiring to create, or serving on a false slate of electors a category B felony in the State of Nevada. Senate Bill 133 passed the legislature but was vetoed by Lombardo, who has aligned himself with several of the Republicans who participated in a Trump-organized fake elector scheme after the 2020 presidential election.

Lombardo in his veto letter argued the punishment was too harsh for the crime — a position shared with his fellow party members, as well as a few Democrats in the legislature.

Lombardo also vetoed Senate Bill 404, which specified what types of documents voters could use as proof of residency when their ballot is challenged. The bill also would have allowed election officials to begin counting ballots during early voting. Currently, all counting begins on Election Day itself.

Durmick concluded that, all in all, Nevadans gained more than they lost during this year’s legislative session. She noted that the majority of the election bills that passed during the legislative session did so with bipartisan support.

“We didn’t win everything,” she added, “but we moved forward.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. 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, three children and one mutt.