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Q&A: Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar on his Latino roots, preserving access to polls

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
GovernmentState Government

When Cisco Aguilar took his oath of office Jan. 2, he became Nevada’s first Latino secretary of state.

The son of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union electrician and the grandson of a union leader, Aguilar said that family history shapes and inspires him as he takes on a job that oversees the Silver State’s elections, as well as a range of other duties including business licensing, certifying ballot questions and maintaining voter registration records.

“My grandfather was a union leader. He put his whole life and purpose into what he did, fighting for workers’ rights, giving them a safe environment to work, but also being a leader for our Latino community,” Aguilar said. “Knowing the struggles my family had when we were young, what my parents did to give me the opportunities I had ... it gives you that purpose.”

Born into a family of Mexican descent, Aguilar grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in which family events were large and the neighbors were Latino. His worldview shifted in high school when he began attending a predominantly white school on the other side of town. 

“It was a great experience, because it forced me to recognize that if you’re going to be successful in this world, you have to figure out a path and an avenue to engage and be as inclusive as you can,” he said. “You have to understand that people have different approaches.”

A first-generation college graduate, Aguilar said he feels responsible for setting examples and ensuring future generations’ success and is committed to working across the political aisle to serve Nevadans. 

Aguilar, 46, said in his position as secretary of state, he’s focused on ensuring access to voting for vulnerable communities and making the state’s business processes less complicated. 

The secretary of state is responsible for maintaining the official records of the state’s executive and legislative branches, but the office has various other functions and responsibilities. It oversees state elections, including certifying candidates, maintaining voter registration records, certifying ballot questions and reporting campaign finance records. 

The office also handles the registration of the several hundred thousand business entities in the state and collects business license fees. Other responsibilities include managing, training and overseeing state-licensed notaries, regulating the state’s securities industry, and maintaining the state registry of living wills, advanced medical directives, and a list of ministers and clergy.

In a wide-ranging sit-down interview with The Nevada Independent on Tuesday, Aguilar discussed his background, working in a divided government, his desire to improve business processes in the state and other legislative priorities.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Explanations of certain terms or ideas have been added in italics as needed.

Nevada constitutional officers, Lieutenant Governor Stavros Anthony, Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar, State Treasurer Zach Conine, Controller Andy Matthews and Attorney General Aaron Ford, take the ceremonial oath of office administered by State Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich during the program at Governor Joe Lombardo’s public inauguration on Jan. 3, 2023, at the Carson City Community Center. The officers took their actual oath the day before during a ceremony inside the Capitol. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

You’re the first Latino secretary of state in Nevada. What does that mean to you?

I had an opportunity to have dinner with a couple of our Latino leaders on Saturday night. And it was a moment of joy. If you looked at Nevada 10-20 years ago, that didn't happen. We were talking about state Sen. Mo Denis, and what he did to build a Latino caucus.

And so to work with them to accomplish what we need to accomplish and set the example for future generations … it's a burden; it's a big purpose. It's setting the example, providing the access, and then propping up people to lead, but making sure they're doing it for the right reasons and never losing sight of where we started, and how we got to where we are today.

Can you tell us a little more about your background and how it shapes your approach to public office?

My big exposure and the way I realized when I was different was when I went to a high school that was not in my neighborhood, it was on the other side of town.

I had to ride a public bus for an hour in the morning, and an hour on the way home. Previously, I went to school with students who were Black and brown like me. And when I showed up at that new school, that wasn't the case. 

And I was like, ‘This is crazy. There's a whole new world out there.’ And just sitting back and watching and listening and seeing that these people have different customs, they have different priorities, they have different ways of doing things and appreciating the fact that my parents gave me the perspective they did.

Living in Germany (as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow at the Adidas Global Headquarters) a few years ago for 14 months was another shocker.

The first three months I was in Germany were just more of an acclimation, to the customs of the country, into the way of life. And then the nine months after that in a job setting, working with your German counterparts and understanding how they approach projects, how they approach their intended purpose, and sitting back and watching and then figuring out where you fit. 

So I think all of those things shape where I am today sitting in this office. It's my responsibility to watch, to listen, and to ask a lot of questions before I come in and say, ‘this is what I feel this is what the agenda is going to be. And these are my goals.’

On the policy front, are you submitting any bill draft requests for the upcoming legislative session? If so, what are they? What are your legislative priorities?

The office has eight bill draft requests. Six of those were developed before I took office. And most of those are administrative to clean up some of the things that need to be cleaned up within the Elections Division, which I agree with. 

One of those is a bill originally requested by former Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske to move up the candidate filing period to February, and another seeks to establish an election procedure manual for election workers throughout the state. 

I look at [policy decisions] through the lens of: What are we doing? Is this what we must do to ensure the state is moving forward? Are we creating a positive gain rather than a negative gain, and then recognizing where we can have the greatest impact on some of the issues that are at the forefront at this moment.

We noticed that your office submitted a bill draft request related to “commercial recordings.” Can you tell me more about that bill?

It's talking about what you need to be in compliance from your business perspective with the secretary of state's office. It includes the functionality of Silver Flume (Nevada’s one-stop business portal), what it is that we're asking our business owners to file initially to establish, and what are we asking them to do on an annual basis. 

Right now, sole proprietors are a big filing within the secretary of state's office, because we're shifting our economy from that corporate structure to more independent workers. We’re talking about Uber drivers. People are figuring out how to be entrepreneurial. And so there are some challenges with sole proprietor filings right now at the moment. And so what can we do within the system? 

And so commercial recordings is that issue, it's making sure that we are able to do the things that need to be done so that our business continues to thrive. 

And we reserved that bill draft request to say, as I'm doing this research and asking questions and listening, what can I propose legislatively to help us be a better partner to all of our groups.

In the past, you've mentioned wanting to put together a bill protecting poll workers. Is that something that you're planning this upcoming legislative session?

It’s coming now, because our elections do not work unless we have a strong human component. We have to recognize that elections work because there are humans behind everything that we're doing there. 

And if we can't recruit that human talent, we're not going to have the elections we need to have. And it's about time we recognize that civility needs to be a part of elections. 

People need to feel safe when they're going to work. They need to feel safe when they're at a polling site. And also too, volunteers are a big part of elections. And if they're not willing to volunteer, because they know it's not a safe environment, we're not going to get the outcomes we need to have; it's not going to be an efficient process. 

I want election workers to know I have their back. And I'm going to stand up for them.

Will you make any changes to the SOS results site? Washington state, for example, provided ballots left to count and more frequent updates. 

Absolutely. I come from a technology background. … How do we get better at making sure people have the information they have when it's available? 

I believe in transparency and people want transparency. And the way you do that is being able to give data in real time. And if people have an understanding about what it is that's occurring, and we're giving it to them as we receive it, I think everybody will be better off. 

At any moment, you can check the stock market, you can know the balance of your portfolio. It’s no different with election results. People want to log on and know that they have the information that's readily available in real time.

Are you planning to push for any campaign finance reform measures?

We're in the process of understanding that issue. If you ask me if it's on the list of priorities, yes. But there are priorities that I want to see accomplished first, like making sure we're investing in Silver Flume, making sure we're investing in a top-down voter registration system. Because those are the foundational pieces to getting to those other issues.

Speaking of the voter registration system, are there any updates on the new top-down centralized state database

When I heard it was going to be a four to six-year implementation process, my head exploded. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if we did that in the private sector, or if MGM took four to six years to implement a new gaming process, it'd be obsolete by the time it actually works.’ 

Right now, especially when the state government has funds to do significant investment and government modernization with one-shot money that produces efficiencies and results in the long term, we have to make those types of strategic decisions now. 

I'll be completely honest with you on top-down voter registration: we need to have that in place by 2024 because it leads to other efficiencies in the flow and process of elections. But that timing is dependent upon additional funding from the Legislature.

There was discussion from some lawmakers last year about recouping funding from counties that got rid of their electronic voting machines, which were purchased with state funds. Is that something you plan to pursue?

You can't come in here like a bulldog and say, ‘OK, because you did this, we're going to do this.’ That’s not the way to approach … this. It's saying, ‘Hey, tell me, what were you thinking? Did it work the way you intended it to work? If not, why did you make this decision? What can we do from a state office to get you comfortable with other processes or systems that work much better than what you're proposing?’

Again, it's stepping back, looking at it and reevaluating. But you have to engage in dialogue with those individuals making that decision. 

Are there any other changes that you want to see to elections or voting laws?

It's a conversation to have. I understand why people want to have the conversation. However, I want to make sure that we maintain the access that we have. We've done an incredible job as a state of making sure every eligible voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot. And we need to make sure that continues. 

You see the adoption rate of mail ballots increase every election cycle. I think people are becoming comfortable with it, we can get better at the processes around mail ballots. However, if you start to try to take away access, then I'm going to become very aggressive in what I think we need to do. 

On his campaign website, Gov. Joe Lombardo has said that part of his Election Integrity Reform Package will include legislation that requires an ID to vote. Lombardo also has said that as part of his package, he will eliminate ballot harvesting, end universal mail ballots and create a bipartisan panel to oversee election systems. Do you support these changes? What would you want constituents to know about where you stand? 

Look, I think these are a bunch of solutions to a problem that doesn't exist. And before we start having these conversations about drastic changes, one of the questions should be: how does it impact access, especially for our vulnerable communities?

When I talk about our vulnerable communities, I talk about the stance AARP has taken on some of these issues. They represent a very specific group of Nevadans. And they deserve a right to participate in our democratic process. And so we have to understand what it is we're trying to accomplish, but at what cost?

If the cost is access, we need to rethink that and understand the unintended consequences. 

Can you expand on who else you’re thinking of when you’re talking about access?

Well, for me, it's about two populations. 

It’s our Native community. Mail ballots have increased their engagement in our voting process by significant numbers. I need to look at the data for this last election cycle. But between the last two, it increased by 25 percent. That's pretty significant. That's 25 percent of a population that didn't have a voice before, that now has a voice and has an opportunity to engage. 

The second is our working community. Just as I talked about sole proprietors, the fact that somebody can vote by mail, and go work their job, drive their hours as an Uber driver. But to ask them to give up a certain portion of their day to go stand in line to vote when that person could be generating revenue, to be paying their kids' tuition, or to be paying their health insurance, or paying for their prescription drugs? 

If we're going to have somebody make that sacrifice when it's not necessary, that's when I'm going to stand up and say, ‘Hey, let's have a conversation about this.’

How is your working relationship with Gov. Lombardo? What conversations have you had with him so far? Do you anticipate friction because of the party difference or the differences in your views and experiences regarding elections? 

I understand he is the leader of the Republican Party, I get it. But at the very end of the day, we're both Nevadans. I understand he has his goals. He has his purpose. I have mine, but it's not going to shut me out from having a conversation. I appreciate the fact that he's been so accessible. He's been open to conversations. It's been fun to sit back and kind of watch him take ownership of this position and really be the leader I think we want him to be in Nevada.

You have hired two known Democrat partisans to be your chief deputy and deputy for the South. What would you tell Republicans who may worry you will take a partisan approach to oversee elections?

The secretary of state is a regulator, you are a regulator of elections. And you're an administrator. You're an administrator of the business processing systems of corporate filings. 

And in those interviews with those individuals, I said, these are my priorities. This is what I want to accomplish. Are you going to be able to adjust? And both of them absolutely said yes. Because they love our state. And they know it's in the best interest of the state as a whole. 

During his inauguration address, Lombardo talked about the “Nevada Way.” What does that mean to you?

We're Nevadans. We have this characteristic that makes us so unique. We're gritty, we're hard-working but we also have big dreams, and we know how to get things done. And what we have to do is set aside the policy disagreements and recognize where we come together. And make that the goal. 

Anything else you would like to add?

I'm super grateful, super thankful to the voters of Nevada for giving me this opportunity. I walk in this building every day knowing the responsibility of the Secretary of State to every Nevadan exists. I need to give it my all, and I need to make sure that I respect every person that lives in this great state. 


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