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Nevada's mail-in ballots aren't perfect, but they could be worse

David Colborne
David Colborne

When I first read the digest for Assemblyman Greg Hafen’s (R-Pahrump) bill requiring proof of identity for voting, Assembly Bill 88, I almost had a heart attack. 

According to the digest, his bill, if passed, would make mail voters add the last four digits of their Social Security Number, plus their driver’s license number, on the return envelope of all mail ballots cast in the state, along with their signature. After our state suffered from widespread unemployment fraud and continues to suffer more cases of identity theft per person than any other state in the country, why would any legislator in this state encourage voters to write personally identifiable information on the outside of an envelope? What dangers would voters face to their credit rating or identity if a ballot were lost or stolen — or the return envelope were simply read by a thief perusing people’s mail?

Then I read the bill text. Yes, AB88 does call for mail voters to write the last four digits of their Social Security Number and their driver’s license number, but not directly on the outside of the ballot return envelope. Instead, the information is written under a flap in the envelope, which is then secured before the envelope is mailed.

That still isn’t great. Ballots could still be lost or stolen — only instead of merely intercepting someone’s vote and signature, each stolen ballot would also contain a driver’s license number and the last four digits of a Social Security Number. That might not seem like much, but it’ll be at least another decade before most of the first recipients of randomized Social Security Numbers reach adulthood. Consequently, many of us still have geographically assigned Social Security Numbers, which means a dedicated identity thief, given the last four digits of a Social Security Number, could make an educated guess regarding the first three digits of their victim’s Social Security Number as well (those born in Nevada before 2011 were issued Social Security Numbers that started either with 530 or 680), then brute-force their way through the remaining combinations until they successfully pass an identity screen.

That’s even easier than you’d think. The Social Security office also used to announce which group of two-digit numbers following each geographically-bound three digit number was being issued. If you want to guess the Social Security Numbers for Nevada-born individuals born before 2011, the Social Security office doesn’t just give you the first three digits (530 or 680), it also narrows the range of possibilities for the next two digits (00-99 if the first three digits are 530, 00-31 if the first three digits are 680). Consequently, given the last four digits of the Social Security Number of a Nevada-born voter, a thief has a 1 in 6,400 chance of guessing the correct Social Security Number.

That might not seem like much of a chance, but it doesn’t take long for even a home computer to count to 6,400:

Less than a single second, in fact.

Worst of all, there’s no limit to the number of tries a thief can attempt.

Given the information above, you may be wondering what problem, exactly, Assm. Hafen is trying to solve.

Legally, it frankly doesn’t matter. A supermajority of Hafen’s colleagues in the Assembly are Democrats and their feelings regarding changes to Nevada’s election policies are plain: It’s “a non-starter.” AB88 is highly unlikely to receive even a committee meeting — unless, of course, his Democratic colleagues are certain some of his more, ah, fervent constituents would say something campaign ad-worthy for the cameras during public comment. He and his colleagues know this, which is why the measure will likely advance no further than the occasional op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Politically, however, the answer is obvious. Assm. Hafen represents Assembly District 36, which glues roughly two-thirds of Pahrump, a few exurban neighborhoods on the edge of the Las Vegas Valley, and small desert communities like Sandy Valley, Indian Springs, and Cactus Springs into a single polity. The exurbs and desert towns don’t add up to much — the overwhelming majority of his electorate lives in Pahrump Valley.

Consequently, his district is about as Republican as Assembly districts get in this state. Since Hafen was appointed to replace Dennis Hof — whose corpse easily won the 2018 general election — he hasn’t faced a single opponent, Democrat or otherwise, in a single general election. The only meaningful electoral opposition Hafen might face would therefore be in a contested primary election — a primary election in which he would have to appeal to the sort of retirees who move to Pahrump, file frivolous amicus curiae, and support the appointment of Michele Fiore as a justice of the peace.

Since many of his voters are recent additions to our state’s electoral rolls (in other words, they just moved there) their understanding of politics is either hyperlocal — don’t get between Pahrump residents and their God-given right to drill their water well a few feet deeper — or purely national, often through a very specific partisan lens. To acknowledge and reflect the interests of these constituents, Hafen reliably produces at least one bill about a national conservative hot-button issue each session. Last session, for example, he lazily copied the spirit, if not the letter, of Florida’s social media regulation bill. This time around, he’s choosing to copy the voter identification portion of Georgia’s recently passed “election integrity” laws.

It’s a reasonably intelligent and effective political strategy — especially since these bills are every bit as likely to survive as a snowball in the Saddle West parking lot during a hot July afternoon. He can tell his constituents he’s doing his best (without actually achieving anything) but those dastardly Democrats and establishment Republicans refuse to let their issues get heard — so please, pretty please, give him an easier time than James Oscarson, his predecessor, had before he lost his primary to then-alive Dennis Hof. It’s not his fault he’s less useful to the body politic than a slightly inflamed appendix, honest.

A less effective political strategy, however, is the one being adopted by his Democratic colleagues on election reform, even if their trepidation is wholly understandable.

It’s undeniably true that much of the conversation surrounding election integrity over the past few years has been instituted in bad faith. Nearly 60 percent of Americans had no faith or confidence in the honesty of U.S. elections going into 2020 — months before a single caucus or primary vote was cast for or against former president Donald Trump or President Joe Biden. This, in no small part, was due to an intentional strategy pursued by the now-former president to discredit the integrity of mail-in ballots, a strategy which sought to build a false narrative of election fraud around incomplete election day results — results which counted in-person (and predominantly Republican) votes first before mail ballots could be fully counted.

Ironically, the reason Republican votes were counted before Democratic votes in the first place is because the voting machines used in our polling places count ballots very quickly and efficiently. If everyone’s ballots were counted by hand — as Hafen’s constituents recently attempted to do and apparently plan on attempting to do again — the spread between quickly counted Republican ballots and more slowly counted Democratic mail-in ballots would be less severe. But I digress.

Acknowledging that, however, it’s also undeniably true that Nevada’s election system was changed on a dime to meet the immediate and pressing needs of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago. Nevada didn’t choose to vote almost exclusively by mail after years of continuous, careful and incremental improvements, as Oregon did in 2000 and Colorado did in 2013. Instead, facing the possibility that polling places could become hotspots for deadly infection, our legislators hastily — smartly, given the information they had to work with at the time, but still hastily — scaled Nevada’s existing mail-in ballot system up from an opt-in system used by fewer than 10 percent of Nevada's voters to a system offered by default to all Nevadans and used by a majority of us

Consequently, it’s not unreasonable to assume further improvements can be made to our vote-by-mail system. Before we consider possible improvements, however, it’s important to identify what’s possible, what’s desirable, and where tradeoffs are being made. 

For example, there are certain tradeoffs inherent in having secret ballots — in having anonymous ballots whose votes can’t be traced back to any specific voter. We can (and do) have a system which can report whether our ballots have been received and counted or not, but it is absolutely impossible to have a system which accurately reports on the contents of that ballot after its been cast without having a system which can tie our individual votes to individual ballots — and if we have such a system, we no longer have secret ballots.

Similarly, as I’ve pointed out at least once before, there are also certain tradeoffs inherent in having widespread mail-in ballots. Since there’s nothing physically preventing mail-in voters from voting at their dining table, during a house party, or during an affinity group meeting, mail-in ballots are inherently less secret — less private — than ballots cast in public polling places where physical partitions and polling observers are present. In extreme cases, this lack of privacy can lead to employers and landlords — or abusive spouses — pressuring voters while they have their mail-in ballot in front of them.

Don’t get me wrong — mail-in ballots are still far more secret and anonymous than the color-coded ballots and voice votes used by American voters until the importation of the “Australian ballot” in the 1890s. We’re still, however, unmistakably trading voting privacy and secrecy for convenience, and if we’re going to do that, we should do so with our eyes open.

Another known issue with mail-in ballots is it’s very difficult to reliably confirm a ballot was actually cast by the person authorized to cast the mail ballot. Signature matching, as both The Atlantic and the New York Times both reported, is something of an inexact science. Not only do individual signatures change over time, especially after a stroke, but some people have multiple signatures — many public performers, for example, have both legal birth names and stage names and may be more accustomed to signing autographs using their stage name. It should consequently not be surprising that non-matching signatures were the leading cause of mail ballot rejections nationwide in both 2018 and 2022 — and the third-leading cause of ballot rejections in 2020.

It is therefore unsurprising that an overwhelming majority of Nevadans are skeptical of our state’s current signature-checking method of identification and instead express support for a different method. 

Before certain Republicans get excited, however, I’ll note that desire should be taken seriously, not literally — most Nevada voters have probably thought sparingly (at most) about what it would take to enforce a visual identification requirement on a mail-in ballot. This puts pro-voter ID Republicans in the same position as many progressives when they advocate for some new and novel government program. Yes, voters, when polled, say they want things like “free” healthcare, housing as a “right,” and for voters to show their identification before they vote — but do voters actually want all of the trade-offs required to make those things happen? Are Nevadans — even Republican Nevadans, many of whom are older, more likely to be targeted by identity thieves, and consequently justifiably suspicious — going to be comfortable having to write their driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security Number on their mail ballots?

Even so, the desire expressed by voters when polled should not be discounted. Nevada’s voters clearly believe our state’s existing signature-based voter verification system is inadequate and they’re not irrational to believe so. A system which discards thousands of cast votes and puts voters through arcane signature “curing” processes is not an ideal system and shouldn’t be treated as politically untouchable, especially by Democrats who support more accessible voting systems.

Yes, Republicans have spent the past couple of years looking for solutions to nonexistent problems in our voting system, and AB88 is absolutely a product of those efforts. Acknowledging as much, however, doesn’t mean Democrats get to wash their hands of identifying and fixing the actual problems in our system.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected]


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