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Permanent expanded mail-in voting, straight ticket ballots draw partisan fire in Legislature

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
ElectionsLegislature
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2020 was just the start.

The fight over how Nevada conducts elections may have subsided since last year’s election but roared back in full view on Thursday, as state lawmakers held hearings on two measures that drew partisan battle lines and could have a profound effect on election cycles in the state.

One measure, AB321, would make Nevada just the sixth state to send mail ballots to all active registered voters (while still requiring in-person voting options) after lawmakers expanded mail voting options for the 2020 election amid the COVID pandemic.

The other, SB292, may have attracted less attention than the expanded mail voting measure, but would still have a substantial effect on elections by raising the standards for minor political parties to make it onto the ballot and requiring straight-ticket voting options on all ballots.

Both measures were staunchly opposed by legislative Republicans and the state party, both of whom engaged in a multi-faceted media campaign to rally opposition against the measures leading up to Thursday’s hearing. 

Democrats — who control both chambers of the Legislature — said they were open to some suggestions on improvements to the bills, but indicated that partisan opposition wasn’t likely to slow their trajectory over the back half of the legislative session.

“The changes made to AB321 incorporate a proven system that is convenient for voters, that's run by dedicated state and local election officials who I know are the best in the country,” bill sponsor Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said. “I'm excited to make these changes that will continue to allow voters the freedom to choose how they want to vote in Nevada.”

Expanded mail voting

As written, AB321 would make permanent many of the provisions from AB4 from the 2020 special session — the bill that expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic or other declared state of emergencies.

It would require local election clerks to send all active registered voters a mail ballot before a primary or general election. Inactive voters, who are legally registered to vote but don’t have a current address on file with election officials, would not be sent a mail ballot.

The bill would allow voters to opt out of being mailed a ballot, by providing written notice to their local or county election clerk. A proposed amendment to the bill would set the deadline for opting out of a mail ballot at 60 days prior to the election.

But the bill isn’t a carbon copy of AB4 — it cuts down on some of the deadlines that were in place for that legislation and the 2020 election. Those changes affect:

  • Mail ballots postmarked by Election Day. Under AB4 and in the 2020 election, those ballots would be accepted if received up to seven days after Election Day. AB321 shortens that deadline to four days.
  • Signature cure (the process allowing voters to fix issues with their signature on their mail ballot). That would go from nine days after Election Day (under AB4) to six days under AB321.
  • Mail ballot processing. County election officials had up to nine days after Election Day to finish counting mail ballots under AB4, but that would be reduced to seven days after Election Day in AB321.

Frierson also presented an amendment that would set a minimum number of polling places for early and Election Day voting (including a requirement that ballot drop boxes be set up at every early vote and Election Day location), allow uninterrupted online voter registration through the early vote period and all the way to Election Day. 

It also would set deadlines on mail ballots for new voters — someone who registered more than 14 days before Election Day would automatically receive a mail ballot, and otherwise would have to vote in person.

But Republican members of the committee said they were still skeptical about the rationale behind the bill and whether it would address their concerns on the broad topic of election security. 

“I had countless constituents that have reached out to me since the election expressing your distrust and uneasiness with the process of the 2020 election,” Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Reno) said. “In fact, many have said that they're not going to vote again. Do you believe the provisions of this bill would restore the confidence that our constituents have since lost in our elections?”

Frierson sought to underline his efforts to compromise and address concerns about election security raised by Republican lawmakers — noting that a section of the bill requiring more frequent checking of voter records with those of the recently deceased, and that it requires annual training on signature verification for election officials and daily audits of signature-checking devices.

“Because as much as many voters may disagree, concerns about election security are real and should be taken seriously,” he said in response to Dickman. “No one should disregard it, and I don’t.”

Still, many Republican lawmakers took umbrage at the provisions in the bill copied over from AB4, including expanded ballot assistance (allowing individuals to help others fill out a ballot if they are unable to because of age or disability) and ballot collection (or “ballot harvesting) where people other than a voter can turn in a completed mail ballot.

The Assembly speaker said he was willing to have conversations on other parts of the bill, but indicated that some of the provisions were likely non-negotiable.

“I think that when it comes to something as important as elections, we may have to agree to disagree on that,” he said at one point.

The proposed legislation drew support from a wide swath of progressive and left-leaning organizations, including Battle Born Progress, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Culinary Union, ACLU of Nevada, Faith in Action Nevada and others that touted the bill as a needed step to increase access to voting.

Anna Villatoro, a strategist with the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, testified that she voted for the first time in the 2020 election and that the process was “incredibly less intimidating” with the variety of in-person and mail voting options available.

“As the first-time voter, these options were critical for me to cast my vote as I also have limited transportation,” she said.

Many bill opponents, including officials of the Nevada Republican Party, said the legislation failed to adequately address alleged election security issues — with many repeating debunked or disproven allegations of massive voter fraud happening in the 2020 election.

“Mailing ballots for all registered voters including tens of thousands of bad addresses is a waste of taxpayer money,” Nevada Republican Party Vice-Chair Jim Hindle said. “It puts ballots out in circulation for bad actors to steal and submit. It's documented to have happened in 2020.”

Some county clerks raised concerns with the legislation; Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria said it would be a “big leap” to implement the bill and that it would likely come with a substantial cost. 

Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula, who submitted a letter estimating the cost of the measure to run upwards of $2.5 million for facilities, staffing and mail costs, suggested the effective date of the bill be delayed until the 2024 election to give election officials more time to implement the change.

“We need adequate time and resources in order to locate, retrofit, and move our operations to accommodate all mail-in elections in this State and still support our in-person voting locations,” Spikula wrote in the letter.

Straight-ticket voting

Through SB292, which would add an option to cast a straight-ticket vote on Nevada's ballots, Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) hopes to simplify the voting process and help voters feel less intimidated.

Straight-ticket voting would allow voters to vote for candidates from one political party by marking that party's name at the top of a ballot. Under the proposed law, a voter could select a straight-ticket option but then also cast a vote for a candidate from a different party, which would supersede the straight-ticket selection in that particular race. Voters could also opt-out of straight-ticket voting altogether.

The bill stipulates that county election officials would incorporate information about straight-ticket information into their voter education programs and is designed to create a smoother voting experience, Lange said.

"The straight-ticket option is just that, an option," she said on Thursday during a hearing on the bill in the Senate’s Legislative Operations and Elections committee. "The goal ... is to help encourage voters to cast their vote in down ballot races, including our own legislative races, that are far too often skipped."

But Republican lawmakers criticized the straight-ticket system as encouraging hyper-partisanship, and said that it would detract from the state's efforts to promote civic engagement.

"In one breath, we're saying, teach civics to students, teach them to be free thinkers … yet, in the next breath, we're saying, auto populate your vote, all the way down, based on party and kind of groupthink," Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) said. "This bill does not assume confidence, I guess, in the electorate."

Democratic Majority Leader Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) pushed back against those critiques. She said that not everyone can research every candidate, and voting based on shared party values does not mean people are blindly throwing away their votes.

"I don't think saying that because somebody picks a particular slate of individuals that they want to give their voice to by way of voting for that individual that they haven't done the appropriate education," Cannizzaro said. "I think that sells our voters a little bit short." 

Along with straight-ticket voting, the bill would also:

  • Increase the signature requirements necessary for new third parties from 1 to 2 percent, equally divided among petition districts. The deadlines for those submissions would be June 1 or the Monday after that date if June 1 falls on a weekend. The deadline to file a challenge to a signature petition would also change from the fourth Friday to the second Monday in June.
  • Repeal state law governing the internal structure of political parties.

Lange said the third-party ballot access change would not affect the state's existing Independent American Party and Libertarian Party, which would continue to qualify and have ballot access with at least 1 percent of votes in Congressional races.

"When you look at third party races, they pay the same amount I do to file. They don't have to run a campaign," Lange told The Nevada Independent before the hearing. "This makes them have to be a little more legitimate."

That provision attracted some pushback from minor political parties. Jo Culver, a volunteer with the People’s Party, said she worried that the increase in signature requirements would decrease individual choice on the ballot.

“I am gender non-conforming, so I am a marginalized community. So what this does is further marginalize us who want and need representation that the two party system isn’t giving us,” Culver said.

Other callers said that the increased signature threshold could be cost prohibitive, thereby hindering the democratic process.

“A 2 percent threshold would be essentially unattainable,” said Gennady Stolyarov II, chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party and a Lead Actuary for property and casualty insurance with the state’s Division of Insurance. “Even more onerous is the requirements in section two, the petition signatures must be apportioned equally among the petition districts, which is essentially impossible to fulfill.”

The bill would also clarify and specify how the state fills vacancies for open seats by:

  • Requiring the governor to appoint a person from the same political party when filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
  • Requiring a candidate filling a vacancy that arises for a U.S. House member to be nominated at a special primary election before the special general election, and the governor to specify the date for the special primary election not less than 60 days before the special general election.
  • Removing a requirement for a special election to be conducted no more than 90 days after the governor issues a proclamation if a catastrophe causes a vacancy.
  • Allows the majority or minority leader of the Assembly or Senate to fill vacancies in either chamber, if the vacant seat was formerly represented by a member of their political party.

Lange said two amendments on the bill would be coming. One amendment from the clerks and election officials would align primary elections with existing election schedules, and the other would allow counties to go to the Legislative Commission and request any funds if an election were to be held.

In her closing remarks, Lange said that the bill has room for improvement but defended the concept of straight-ticket voting. 

“Straight-ticket voting is not the fact that if you circle Democrat or Republican at the top of the ticket that you can't make other informed choices,” Lange said. “This allows you to make informed choices down the ballot, should you choose to do that.”

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