In debates, secretary of state candidates cast wildly different visions
At a time when trust in elections has hit record lows, the race for the office of Nevada’s chief election officer is garnering renewed interest and attracting a large slate of candidates proposing drastic overhauls of the voting process.
In debates and forums this month, six of the seven candidates vying to replace Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (a Republican barred from running again because of term limits) made it clear that the trajectory of the office will change after the 2022 elections.
Democratic candidates largely praised Cegavske for refusing to entertain at-times fantastical conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the 2020 election, but said electing a member of their party was necessary to maintain and carry out voting changes adopted by the Legislature.
“The next secretary of state has to be a Democrat,” said Cisco Aguilar, the Democratic fundraising leader in the race, “because if they're not a Democrat, we're not going to see some of the legislation that the governor and the Legislature have passed to make voter access stronger.”
On the Republican side, most candidates at a forum held last week in Reno embraced the “big lie” that the 2020 election was rife with fraud and pledged to enact policies such as voter ID and paper ballot-only elections. Jim Marchant, a former assemblyman and congressional candidate, went a step further.
“Your vote hasn't counted for decades,” Marchant said. “You haven't elected anybody. The people that are in office have been selected. You haven't had a choice.”
A September poll from The Mellman Group for The Nevada Independent showed that while 54 percent of those likely voters surveyed believed Joe Biden won Nevada fairly, a full 35 percent identified more with the idea that “Joe Biden only appears to have won Nevada because of fraud.” Among self-identified Republicans, 74 percent align with the fraud view.
That staunch divide over the legitimacy of the election has drawn more attention to the down-ballot office, which in addition to elections enforces state securities laws, issues business licenses and oversees notaries public. The candidate filing period, when people must make their candidacy official, is in March.
And even though a future office-holder may be limited based on which party controls the Legislature and governor’s office, results from not only the November 2022 election but also the upcoming June primaries will play a major role in determining how elections are conducted in 2024 and beyond.
Republican candidates at the Red Move Nevada panel held last Thursday included Marchant, former Las Vegas District Court Judge Richard Scotti, Sparks City Councilman Kristopher Dahir and Socorro Keenan. Jesse Haw, a Reno-based developer and one-time state senator who recently announced a well-funded bid for the office, did not participate in the debate.
Scotti and Marchant both explicitly endorsed a move toward “paper ballots” and said they would move immediately to decertify Dominion Voting machines, mechanical voting systems used by 16 of 17 Nevada counties that were the subject of multiple conspiracy theories in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
“When I get into office, I'll have that done the very first day,” Scotti said. “That will restore confidence. We can't have 50 percent of the country thinking that our elections are rigged, elections are unfair.”
Scotti also asserted there were problems with USB ports on voting machines leading to data inconsistencies from morning to evening. The Nevada Republican Party made similar claims in the aftermath of the election, but the secretary of state’s office confirmed that post-election audits “confirmed the machines accurately tabulated the votes cast.”
Nevada first adopted laws allowing for voting machines in 1951, with major changes adopted in the aftermath of voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election and passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. Then-Secretary of State Dean Heller, a Republican, moved for the state to buy touch-screen voting machines built by the predecessor to Dominion Voting and optical scan machines for absentee voting for all Nevada counties ahead of the 2004 election. The machines also included what’s called a “voter-verifiable paper audit trail,” giving voters a visible paper record of their ballot selections made through the machine.
The secretary of state is given authority to certify or decertify voting systems in use throughout the state. Though state law sets out requirements as to how a voting system or software can become certified, withdrawing that certification requires far fewer steps.
Keenan compared American voting systems now to “third world country voting … where they know how to cheat.” She said the state needed to “close the door on electronics” because devices can be hacked, but also argued that “we need cameras, we need drones when people are voting.”
In contrast to his primary opponents, Dahir proposed a greater role for technology, suggesting the digital voting systems used for overseas military voting could be used with “shut-ins” or people who have a difficult time in social situations, such as veterans, eliminating the need for “ballot harvesting” — the practice of a person turning in a ballot on behalf of another person.
“I know there's … so many questions around our voting. I don't mind taking a back step if we need to for a moment,” Dahir said. “But technology is not the enemy. It's actually the people using it.”
Asked about ensuring the integrity of voter rolls, Marchant said “the first thing I’m going to do is get rid of ERIC,” referring to the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center.
ERIC, a decades-old database sharing program that encompasses voter records from more than 30 states across the political spectrum, has recently come under fire from right-wing activists falsely alleging that it is part of a left-wing conspiracy to control voting.
The data-sharing system helps states clean up their voter rolls by sharing information among states and other government agencies (such as the DMV or Social Security Administration) when a registered voter moves away or dies. But participation in the program, which is led by state-level election officials in three dozen states, is now becoming a partisan issue. Louisiana’s secretary of state withdrew from the organization in January, and a secretary of state candidate in Alabama also pledged to back the state away from the program if elected.
Dahir pushed back on the premise of the question, noting that Cegavske’s administration is already meeting regularly with the state’s office of vital statistics to keep the state’s voter registration records up-to-date.
“Now you may not believe them, and that means everyone's a liar to you, and I don't think that's a way to live,” he said. “I have to believe what people tell me and I walk forward the best I can and then I verify and I check, and if they do that, I believe that.”
All of the candidates, including Dahir, said they would advocate for implementation of voter ID requirements. A proposed ballot measure implementing voter ID was filed last month with the secretary of state’s office.
Debate moderators noted that the candidates could have a tough time implementing their agendas given the likelihood of Democratic control of the Legislature. Scotti said he would instruct the office to issue an opinion finding recently enacted laws allowing for ballot collection (or ballot harvesting) to be “unconstitutional,” and then court action to strike it down.
“I’ll file as many lawsuits as I can to stop it,” he said.
The candidates were also asked what they would do in office to help small businesses. Marchant suggested reducing or eliminating the state’s annual business license fee ($500 for corporations, $200 for all other businesses) and beefing up public awareness on how to register a business.
In an email, Marchant’s campaign said it won the “straw poll” conducted the night of the panel, with 31 percent of the vote. Dahir and Scotti were each supported by 26 percent of candidates, and Keenan received 17 percent.
At a panel hosted by the South Washoe Democrats on Monday, Ellen Spiegel touted her credentials as a state lawmaker who spent years representing a relatively conservative Henderson district. As a lawmaker, she carried a bill in 2017 to legalize marriage for same-sex couples, won an award for her work on workplace breastfeeding laws, and assure health care for people with preexisting medical conditions.
She acknowledged a lack of trust in the election process, arguing for increased transparency, including by getting election administrators in all 17 counties to agree on uniform standards governing the process of signature verification. She also said the office could implement more quality-assurance practices to assess the timeliness and accuracy of ballot counting.
“It is really vital that we do a lot of work here in Nevada and nationally to restore voter confidence and to make people feel that it's not rigged,” she said. “Because it's one thing to know that it's not rigged, and I think we all know that it's not rigged, and we know that fraud isn't a problem in Nevada, but to get people on an emotional level to understand that, is work that has to be done.”
Aguilar, a lawyer and former member of the Nevada Athletic Commission that regulates boxing and mixed martial arts, said it’s about bringing sensible and practical people of both parties together for conversation, as well as public education.
“We have to go out and educate the public about how our systems work,” he said. “We have to educate them about why they work and we have to explain when things don't work, and if they don't work, we need to be honest about it.”
Aguilar argued strongly against implementing voter ID in Nevada.
“I think there's very obvious and logical ways to verify the existence of a voter,” he said. “The harder we make it, and the more requirements we put on it, again, goes to impact our most vulnerable families and our most vulnerable communities. And we should be doing the opposite.”
Spiegel argued that signature verification can be more reliable than photo ID, especially when some driver’s licenses are active for eight years and people might go through dramatic changes in their weight or hairstyle over that time.
“I don't look like my driver's license anymore. This picture was taken in 2017,” she said, pulling up a photo of her license. “I've actually had TSA stop me and not want to let me get on an airplane because I don't look like that picture. But my signature and the signature verification process that we use, really is effective because people's signature doesn't change.”
Asked about what to do about people who believe the election was stolen and now want to volunteer at the polls, Spiegel noted that in the early 2000s, it was Democrats who wanted to be poll watchers because they were distrustful of the “hanging chads” situation in Florida when George W. Bush won a close election over Al Gore.
“I think it's important to increase transparency and let them be an open system so that they can see,” Spiegel said. “Now that said, people who are poll workers also need to be going through training, and … we need to make sure that they're doing it the right way, regardless of their own personal motivation for signing up. They need to be trained, they need to execute the job in a fair, just way.”
Aguilar said it was important that the secretary of state’s office is clear about the regulations governing poll watchers. The office recently held a workshop to consider rules governing the behavior of election observers, which drew a backlash from Republicans who feared they would be overly restrictive.
Asked about how they would deal with threats — a growing concern for election administrators in Nevada and elsewhere — both candidates said they were prepared for that part of the job. Aguilar said he faced consistent threats over decisions he made on the Nevada Athletic Commission.
“It doesn't bother me, if we can see progress or we're providing an opportunity for someone to exercise one of their fundamental rights,” he said. “The threats and everything else don't scare me. I've had them before.”
Spiegel said her first death threat after being elected was disconcerting, but she learned how to deal with them over time and — as a native New Yorker — tries to be vigilant about her surroundings. She added that it’s still vital to restore faith in elections.
Asked what made him the superior choice among Democrats for the role, Aguilar said it was executive experience. He pointed to his work helping raise $50 million for a college preparatory high school in North Las Vegas, and his work on the drug testing program through the Nevada Athletic Commission that he said made major boxing matches such as the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight possible.
Spiegel made the case that she was best for the role because of her legislative experience, which she said helped her understand how government works, and her 40 years of experience working with businesses as small as one person and as large as American Express and the Weather Channel.
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