New Clark County Registrar Lorena Portillo runs on passion for democracy
Lorena Portillo is hard at work as Clark County’s brand new registrar of voters and said she “continue[s] to learn every day.”
She was appointed last month by the Clark County Commission to replace Joe Gloria, who retired late last year after working in the department for 28 years — nine as registrar. Portillo, 47, has worked in the county elections department for 25 years, starting out in a part-time position to make ends meet as a young mom earning her associate degree.
“This is not an off year. This is when we are really busy preparing — this is the only time — because our focus in 2024 is just elections,” Portillo said. “Setting up for such a big election, we definitely need a year in advance.”
In 2024, the state will see three elections: the presidential preference primary election in February, the primary in June and the general election in November. Portillo said she is focused on voter education and outreach, including ensuring “everyone is prepared and all voters are informed of what's to come.”
Portillo said she fell in love with the democratic process after working through her first election in 1998, and as soon as a permanent position opened up, she applied and “the rest is history.” Before being appointed, Portillo worked as the assistant registrar of voters and was often the department’s bilingual contact for Spanish-language interviews.
“It's very exciting to be part of the process but more exciting to continue enhancing our systems,” Portillo said. “We can't do this without having passion. That's what drives us every single day. A job does not drive me to get up early in the morning … Passion does.”
Portillo, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, attributes her work ethic to her immigrant parents and her Mexican roots. She said her dad often reminds her to be grateful for her job even when she’s tired.
“If I ever say I'm a little tired, my dad says, ‘No mija [my daughter], it's great that you have a job,’” she said. “Work ethic is really important, treasuring the work you do and having the passion to continue every day … That's part of who I am.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, Portillo has seen the city change and grow — she graduated from the original Las Vegas High School in downtown, which is now Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.
When she’s not working, Portillo said she loves spending time with her family and her dog, Boo, and cat, Bonita.
Former Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria was Clark County's first Latino registrar. Now, with Portillo joining Washoe Registrar Jamie Rodriguez and Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar, the state’s three most prominent election administrator roles are held by Latinos.
But Portillo reminds voters the elections officials represent the entire community and will continue “holding elections with integrity and accessibility.”
“We can't, of course, forget our roots. We definitely have that connection of lucha [fight] for what we believe in,” Portillo said. “But I don't want folks to think that that's the only community that we represent. And that's definitely the way we all feel … And maybe the fact that we are Latina or Latino does add a little extra pride.”
Portillo said the job comes with some sacrifice — long hours and deadlines — but the support from leaders in the department prepared her in many ways to take the position with confidence.
“If you don't have a strong team, it's a little bit more difficult. But we do. Our team is just as passionate as I am,” she said.
Portillo’s job could change significantly depending on what election-related bills the Legislature approves in the ongoing session. Proposals on the table include changing the mail ballot return postmark deadline to the last day of the early voting period instead of on or before Election Day, as well as requiring proof of identity to vote in person, and adding more languages in which voting materials are available.
In 2016, just over 78,500 voters in Nevada, or about 7 percent, cast their vote by absentee or mail ballots. Four years later, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a law changed in an emergency special session to automatically mail voters a ballot, nearly half of the votes were cast by mail.
Portillo said the department will implement any changes that may come from the Legislature. She added that while people might be skeptical of mail ballots and voting machines, she has seen “a tremendous increase in participation” since mail ballots became a mainstream part of the process, and noted that voting machines have security features that are tested and updated.
Portillo said she has met with Filipino, Hispanic and Indigenous community members to hear their concerns and questions, and is also planning to meet with Chinese community members.
“Whoever wants to come and talk to us, we are open,” Portillo said.
After the 2020 election, election officials have been subject to scrutiny and even threats. Portillo said the department works closely with law enforcement to address any potential issues, from physical safety to cybersecurity. Former Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula resigned last summer, describing her final months in office as full of stress, online harassment and threats.
The Legislature is considering SB406, which aims to ensure election worker confidentiality by making disseminating any personal or identifying information of an election official a felony, especially with the intent to encourage or cause harm.
“We definitely take that very seriously. We want our voters and our staff to feel safe. I am very confident that we are prepared,” she said.