A long-standing progressive goal of allowing same-day voter registration in Nevada elections is being met with some skepticism from state and county election officials.
A Wednesday hearing on SB123, which would authorize the extension of early voting and require county election officials to allow for voters to register and cast a ballot, saw hours of testimony from progressive groups in favor and a handful of Republican-leaning groups opposed.
But several county election registrars from counties large and small identified a slew of concerns with the bill. Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria said the state’s current “decentralized” system of voter registration meant that — barring changes to the bill — counties wouldn’t have proper safeguards in place.
“If same-day registration process is handled with a paper form, other than signing an affidavit affirming that the voter has not already voted in the election, there can be no guarantee that the voter has not registered to vote at another location on Election Day,” he said, reading from prepared testimony. “Not until after the election will clerks have the ability to identify that the voter has not voted at another site, which is problematic.”
The bill, which was presented by Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall, would require county clerks to set up a designated polling place where individuals could register to vote and cast a ballot on the day of an election. The person would need to complete an application registering to vote and provide proof of identity (through a driver’s license or other government-issued ID) and proof of residence.
The bill also requires county clerks to “prescribe a procedure” to verify that the voter has not already cast a ballot in the current election. It also authorizes county clerks to extend early voting for an extra two days through the Sunday before an election; current early voting balloting closes on the Friday before an election.
Ohrenschall cited statistics showing that more than 10,700 voters had turned in voter registration applications after the deadline to register for the 2018 election, including more than 7,300 in Clark County and over 2,200 in Washoe County.
“The purpose of SB123 is to make it more feasible for people to be part of the government of ourselves, by making it easier to register to vote, and offer a few more options to vote during the early voting period,” he said during the hearing.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of same-day voter registration. States with same-day voter registration typically see a 3 to 7 percent bump in total voter turnout and studies indicate no real effect on turnout for a particular party or demographic group.
Gov. Steve Sisolak expressed his support for expanding early voting in an interview with The Nevada Independent prior to the legislative session.
But county election clerks raised multiple concerns with the bill. Gloria suggested that the county would need to have staff and material available for same-day voter registration at each of the county’s polling places, given the geographically large size of the county and to avoid any long lines at a handful of particular polling places.
He estimated that the increase in Election Day voters would require a minimum of 516 additional poll workers, plus another dozen or more IT staff to manage the increased workload and technology and connectivity upgrades — costing about $1.4 million.
Similarly, Washoe County estimated that implementing same-day registration would require hiring an additional 164 poll workers and various equipment and technology costing more than $330,000.
Gloria and Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula also suggested that lawmakers amend the bill to make ballots cast by people who registered to vote on the same-day registration count as provisional. Several states with same-day voter registration, including Utah, initially count all such ballots as provisional.
Provisional ballots are typically cast by individuals who say they’re registered to vote but don’t show up on a list of registered voters, giving election officials the ability to further vet the ballots. In 2018, more than 2,000 provisional ballots were cast but more than 1,850 were rejected, largely because of individuals not registered to vote.
If lawmakers decide to move to provisional ballots, Gloria suggested that the state also extend the official canvassing period — where election officials certify final election results — from six working days to 14 working days after the election. He also suggested another change in law to allow provisional ballots to be cast in state as well as federal races; current law only allows them to be cast for federal races.
At the close of the hearing, Ohrenschall said he was open to working with county clerks to find “common ground” on the issue, including a change to provisional ballots.
“I believe that’s a possible amendment that could give a lot of people comfort,” he said.
Wayne Thorley, the deputy secretary of state for elections, warned that adding more provisional ballots through same-day voter registration could result in close races dragging on for multiple days as election officials work to process a larger chunk of provisional ballots.
“Under the current process, results don’t change much from unofficial to the official status as we’re doing our verifications,” he said. “With this provisional ballot process for same-day registrants, there is a possibility that results would change significantly between what is the initial count on election night and what is the actual canvassed count once all the ballots are counted.”
A key issue is the fact that Nevada has a decentralized system of voter registration, where each county independently compiles a list of registered voters and sends it to the secretary of state’s office, which compiles the data into a master list and checks it against other databases to ensure that individuals are able to vote. Thorley said that implementing same-day voter registration under the current system without using provisional ballots would leave counties “unable to uphold the integrity of the process.”
The state could shift to a centralized voter registration system, where counties all operate using a uniform system and can see changes in voter registration information from other counties in real time, but Thorley said such a move would likely cost millions of dollars and not be completed in time for the 2020 election, given the office was working on implementing the voter-approved automatic voter registration initiative approved on the 2018 ballot.
The Nevada Association of County Clerks and Election Officials recommended that lawmakers move to implement a centralized voter registration database after the 2020 election, stating that it would be “impossible” for a system overhaul to be completed before the election. The association pointed toward a similar system upgrade in Colorado, which cost more than $9.3 million and took more than 20 months to implement.
It’s also unclear whether counties would take advantage of the extra two days of early voting. Gloria told lawmakers that the prospect presented “numerous logistical issues” for the county, as the department typically spends the weekend verifying all equipment and voter information has been updated and all equipment is loaded and ready to be moved in to place prior to Election Day.
“Extending early voting to Saturday or Sunday would make it impossible to support this critical work, a process that has a direct correlation to the integrity of our voting process on Election Day,” he said.
The bill is somewhat similar to Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts’s AB137, but that measure would require Washoe and Clark counties to extend early voting to the Monday before the election, allow voter registration during early voting and on Election Day, and allow people to get in line to vote even after polls close at 7 p.m. on election day if there are other people already in line.