Lawmakers kicked off the 2021 session in the shadow of a bruising election marked by the former president sowing doubt about the results and a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
It’s served to push the two parties further apart: Republicans are trying to roll back an expansion of voting opportunities based on instances they’ve seen of stray ballots and unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud. Democrats have become even more strident defenders of the election’s integrity.
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) reiterated in an interview what state and local election officials have said about the election: that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. She said any policy discussions or ideas that stem from the “plethora of lies” related to the election wouldn’t see the light of day this session.
“To somehow say the Legislature should get involved in this, is really founded on that fundamental principle that is being spread throughout the United States, which led to an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Cannizzaro said in an interview on Thursday. “We're not going to do any policy in this building based upon that crime.”
Republicans in recent weeks distanced themselves from the more extreme allegations lodged by President Donald Trump’s supporters and campaign, which posited that up to 10 percent of ballots cast in Nevada might be fraudulent. Following a press conference last week, representatives of the Assembly Republican Caucus asserted that the election was not “fraudulent” but that reforms were still needed to button up procedures and address what polls show is a lack of confidence in the process.
But the issue is not totally put to rest. Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler still referenced 42,000 duplicate ballots in the press conference as something that should be investigated, and Republican Sen. Carrie Buck suggested 1,500 dead people voting during a committee hearing. Both allegations trace back to Trump campaign officials and were presented in an election challenge lawsuit rejected in court; proponents have yet to publicly attach names to the tens of thousands of votes they consider suspicious.
Under the stated goal of “enacting meaningful election reform,” Republican lawmakers have introduced a suite of legislation related to elections — everything from full-scale repeals of expanded mail-in voting, requiring identification to vote and rolling back changes lawmakers made in 2019, such as same-day voter registration.
Most of those could be considered dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson both said they’re open to concepts that will improve the function of the state’s election system, as long as they come in good faith and don't aim to solve an unsubstantiated voter fraud problem.
“We all want accurate elections,” Frierson said. “The folks that are concerned about accuracy and fraud, regardless of whether or not I believe that the basis for those concerns is legitimate or reliable, I do believe that we need to hear them out and make sure that we have an inclusive vetting process.”
Keeping expanded mail-in voting permanently
Few bills passed out of the Legislature have sparked more partisan flames than AB4.
The bill, passed on party lines in a 2020 special legislative session, required state election officials to mail ballots to all active registered voters in the state, while continuing in-person early and Election Day voting and legalizing “ballot collection,” where individuals are allowed to pick up and drop off mail ballots for non-family members (a practice described pejoratively by Republicans as “ballot harvesting”).
Democrats said the measure was a necessary step in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; Republicans complained that it was a last-minute rules change aimed at giving the other party a leg up. (A lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign seeking to block implementation of the measure was dismissed before the election).
But with the dust mostly settled from the 2020 election — which saw a record number of votes cast and nearly half submitted through mail or a drop box — Nevada Democrats are now doubling down. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson wrote in a recent op-ed that he planned to introduce a bill in the 2021 Legislature that would make the provisions of AB4 permanent and not subject to whether or not the state is in a pandemic.
In an interview Thursday, Frierson touted the heavy use of the mail option, saying it was evidence that voters would continue to use that method of voting even after the pandemic.
“It would be different if we went from 9 percent to 11 percent (mail turnout), and folks were simply determined to vote in person no matter what,” he said. “But the incredible turnout that we saw this past election cycle speaks to what Nevadans as a whole want, and as long as we continue to do that in a safe and secure and effective way, I think it's certainly always a good thing to give folks the freedom to make as many choices as they can.”
No bill language has been introduced, and Frierson said he would be “open to some tweaks” based on feedback from state and local election officials on any issues that came up in carrying out the 2020 election — notably in reporting results faster.
But the Assembly Democratic leader poured cold water on proposals to cut back on ballot collection practices, saying he wouldn’t implement policy based on “a made-up concern that there's no factual basis for.”
“If you have suggestions about how to improve what we have, then we're going to have a vetting process to have that conversation,” he said. “But if your only answer is there are problems that we have not been able to identify, so we just think we should take steps backwards, that's not really something that is solving a problem.”
Republican pushback on AB4
But Republicans nonetheless chafe at AB4, and many signed on to bills that would repeal that section of law entirely.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus said her caucus remained opposed to the continued expansion of mail-in voting and that making the proposal permanent would “drive us further apart.” Any perception that voters are restricted without sweeping mail balloting is a “manufactured crisis by partisan politicians,” she said.
“We have an unshakable conviction that universal mail and voting and ballot harvesting will further degrade the fragile civic trust already shared by millions of people in the state of Nevada,” she said.
Assemblyman Andy Matthews is sponsoring AB134, which would repeal all of the changes made in AB4. He said he wanted to bring the bill over concerns from constituents about the security of the state’s election system, including when ballots arrive at their homes for people who have moved or died.
“I'm not telling them they should have doubts about election security,” Matthews said. “And it's not coming from an elected official or from a news network or a pundit. This is just something they see with their own eyes. And they go, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn't add up.’”
Straight-ticket voting and vacancy appointment changes
Legislative Democrats have broader ambitions for election policy beyond keeping universal mail-in voting in place.
Democratic Sen. Roberta Lange proposes allowing voters to cast a straight ticket vote in partisan races — essentially allowing voters to choose a party’s entire candidate slate with a single mark on the ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six other states still have straight-ticket voting laws on the books.
Lange said straight-ticket voting options help increase participation among minority populations, and that it could help avoid issues of “undervoting,” where people just cast a vote for high-profile races and skip down-ballot contests.
“Lots of times, it's too much for people to go through,” she said. “So it just gives an opportunity for people that want to vote straight Democrat or straight Republican to have options to bubble in, and it increases their participation.”
Another significant change in Lange’s bill, which has not yet been introduced, would come in the process of filling vacancies.
Current law requires that county commissions fill vacant legislative seats in their jurisdiction, by picking from a slate of applicants who are required to live in the same district and be of the same political party. The proposed change would remove county commissioners from the appointment process and allow the highest-ranking member of the same party in the respective legislative chamber to choose the replacement.
Lange said that county commissioners have expressed frustration about making appointments to a body that they themselves don’t serve on. She said individual caucus leaders would be better suited to making that call.
“It's hard for the county commission to understand and know everything that we might need, because we work together, we're very close,” Lange said. “And so it just makes sense that it would stay with the body of where that opening is.”
The proposed bill also changes the procedure for filling nomination vacancies after a primary election but before the general election, giving the appointment power to the senior partisan leader in the appropriate jurisdiction.
It’d change the process if the vacancy occurs and there are no other members in the jurisdiction of the same political party — it’d then go to the governor, all statewide elected officers, and then legislative leadership, with the first elected official of the same political party in that lineup given the decision-making power.
Another provision would clear up conflicting opinions as to the selection of major party candidates in special elections to fill U.S. House seats — clarifying that a primary election is required before a special election.
The issue arose in the 2011, where political parties differed on whether state law on special elections should be considered “open” (with an unlimited number of candidates,) or if state party central committees should select the nominees for the special election. The election was won by Republican Mark Amodei, who still holds the seat.
Lange’s bill would also repeal sections of state law related to the function and structure of major political parties in the state. She said the current statutory scheme could easily run afoul of the Constitution, as the state shouldn’t be involved in the governance and structure of political parties as private organizations.
“The political parties already have their own constitution and bylaws,” she said. “So it should be a fairly easy transition. It doesn't change what they're doing.”
Nevada’s ever-growing bloc of nonpartisan voters could have a greater voice if lawmakers advance a bill to implement a “blanket primary,” although even proponents expect it will be a hard sell among legislative leaders who are the product of the two-party system.
The measure introduced by Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, SB121, creates a modified nonpartisan “blanket” primary system in which the names of all candidates appear on the primary election ballot and any registered voter may vote for any candidate, regardless of their affiliation with a political party.
It would essentially make Nevada elections that are run as partisan operations to run more like nonpartisan elections, such as those for local government seats. That doesn’t necessarily mean the candidates chosen are more moderate — outspoken conservatives such as Las Vegas City Council members Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman won their nonpartisan races, for example.
“I think it's dangerous to make assumptions about what the outcomes are going to be because I don't think that's how it works,” Kieckhefer said. “I don't think it necessarily rewards moderation. It rewards responsiveness, attention to a broader swath of the electorate.”
Legislative leaders gave the idea a cold reception in interviews. Frierson said he personally wasn’t interested in the concept of open primaries, and had issues with the potential cost as well as effects on the party process.
“I don't see what problem that would be solving,” he said.
Cannizzaro said she didn’t know that Democrats were interested in the concept.
“We have political parties that are picking their nominations,” she said. “That's really what our primary election is for, is who's representing that particular … organized political party on the ballot.”
The Nevada Republican Party memorialized its opposition to the concept in its 2020 platform.
“We support the current, partisan primary election system, and oppose any alternative such as the Open Primary System,” the platform states.
Doug Goodman, executive director of Nevadans for Election Reform and a proponent of the concept, said he thinks the idea doesn’t stand a chance with the current leadership but might succeed if it went to a statewide vote.
“One is the status quo,” he said. “‘This is how elections are done, and we're the party that benefits from the current system.’ They don't realize that the party that gets out there and actually expands the system is actually going to be the party that benefits.”
He also would like to see ranked choice voting, where voters can rank candidates in order of highest to lowest preference, and the candidate with highest overall favorability would win. Democrats used such a process during early voting for the presidential caucuses.
“It was very well received,” he said. “People loved it.”
Cannizzaro said Democrats don’t have any plans to expand use of that concept.
Proposals to require ID to vote have failed even in Republican-led sessions. In 2015, the concept got a hearing but ultimately failed amid arguments that the practice throws up too many barriers for people, especially the elderly who may no longer have a license.
This time, Republican Sen. Keith Pickard and Republican Assemblyman John Ellison have both requested voter ID bills be drafted.
The measures would keep the practice of voters who show up to the polls stating their name, signing a roster and having the poll worker look them up to verify they have not voted and comparing the signature to one on file. But it would add a requirement that the voter present proof of identification; those who do not have a driver’s license or similar identification could apply to the DMV for a voter identification card.
Cannizzaro panned the concept.
“Voter ID laws are, quite frankly, in every way in which you can look at this issue ... a way to disenfranchise poor, minority, and elderly populations, who have less ability to obtain state-issued licenses,” she said. “We're not going to do that now. We're not going to disenfranchise voters under the guise of election security.”
Legislature certifying the vote
Wheeler is bringing a bill that would have the Legislature certify elections — an idea that would be a shift from the current practice of having Supreme Court justices canvass the results of a general election in late November. The governor then issues certificates of election to the winners in a process that is largely a low-key formality but garnered much more attention in 2020.
Wheeler has requested a resolution that would amend the Nevada Constitution and require the Legislature to do the canvass and certification. Formal language for that idea has not been released, and amending the Constitution would require approval in two subsequent legislative sessions and through a statewide vote.
Wheeler said such a change would align the Nevada Constitution with the U.S. Constitution. That appears to be a reference to a portion of the U.S. Constitution that says “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State.”
“I think that if the people saw it was their closest representatives — legislators — certifying the elections, not the secretary of state, not the governor, not anyone else, not the Supreme Court, that it’s their legislators that are doing that, they're gonna have more faith in our elections,” he said. “And that's all I'm looking for.”
In the aftermath of his 2020 loss, President Donald Trump requested lawmakers in states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia to help him reverse a loss in those states by appointing an alternative slate of electors supportive of the president. None of the states ultimately fulfilled the request.
Wheeler said he doesn’t anticipate a change in the certification process would alter the results of the election, but would give lawmakers another juncture to review the results.
“If there was widespread allegations of fraud … then we might call a hearing before we certify none of that happened," he said. "We've got that power, the other people don't."
Cannizzaro said such a concept was unnecessary.
“I have the utmost confidence in our election officials to be able to run elections and to be able to certify those results and to give us information about those results,” she said. “So I don't know why we would go and mess with that process, and insert ourselves.”
Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report.