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Indy Explains: Election reform bills passed by 2017 Legislature

Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Indy ExplainersLegislature
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For Republicans and Democrats alike, the electoral system in the United States is one of the most deeply cherished yet hotly debated features of American politics.

During the 2016 election there were allegations of voter suppression by the left and allegations of unauthorized votes cast by the right. Here in Nevada, the Republican secretary of state announced in April that she was opening an investigation into the evidence that three non-citizens voted in the 2016 election.

With the election fresh in their minds, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle brought forward a number of potential changes to the election system in Nevada during the 2017 legislative session, from automatic voter registration initiatives supported by Democrats to a proposal to require voters to show ID at the polls from the GOP. While most of the conservative initiatives never got a hearing (and thus never received a vote) in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, several pieces of election-related legislation passed with bipartisan support, including measures making a number of small but noteworthy tweaks to election deadlines, changing campaign finance reporting requirements and spelling out eligibility requirements for candidates.

Other measures, such as the multiple attempts to create so-called “vote centers” where anyone can vote on Election Day instead of the traditional precinct-style system, failed at the Legislature but are still being worked on ahead of the 2018 election. For instance, Clark County is moving forward to implement vote center-style voting starting in the 2018 primary election, since the practice isn’t expressly allowed or prohibited by state law.

“Vote centers is a concept that is good for voters,” said Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria. “It just provides more access. Our daily lives have become so complex. Everybody doesn’t always have a perfect day on Election Day. Their child might get sick, they might get sick.”

Clark County will have roughly 160 vote centers where anyone can cast their ballots on Election Day instead of the precinct-style voting, which required voters in the 2016 election to travel to one of 279 designated sites to cast their ballot. Gloria said that vote center-style voting will reduce the number of provisional ballots cast by voters who simply go to the wrong polling place because all ballots will be available at all polling locations.

Voters will be able to go online to find a voting site and view in real time the wait time at each vote center. Gloria said that many of the vote center locations will be at successful early voting sites, such as the Galleria Mall, Boulevard Mall and Centennial Center.

He will present the vote center concept to the general public on July 10 at the Clark County Government Center.

Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley said his office is leaving the decision of whether to implement the practice up to each individual county. For instance, Carson City already has vote center-style voting in place with its two polling locations at the community center and courthouse.

“From our office’s perspective we’re supportive of whichever way the county wants to do it,” Thorley said. “We do vote centers during early voting so counties have experience running vote centers. We have the technology in place to do it, it’s really a decision that’s being left up to the counties.”

Another idea that failed to move forward at the Legislature was opt-out voter registration at the DMV. The governor vetoed an initiative petition to implement the system at the beginning of the legislative session, meaning that it now moves forward to a move of the people in 2018; a backstop measure introduced by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford that would have allowed the Legislature to consider and pass an opt-out voter registration law this session without having to go to the ballot box never received a hearing.

Thorley noted that there are some concerns with opt-out voter registration, such as accidentally registering military voters who want to stay registered in a different state than the one they’re stationed at or registering people who aren’t old enough, are non-citizens or have a felony conviction and have not had their rights restored. Plus, the state isn’t allowed to verify citizenship before registering a voter, which means that it takes a specific complaint to investigate an issue with someone’s voter registration, he said.

Clark County’s Gloria said that there are still some logistical IT solutions that need to be put in place but emphasized the integrity of the voter registration process at the DMV. He said that opt-out voter registration systems could cut down on the need for third parties to register voters out in the field, some of whom could be paid by the signature and potentially encouraged to submit duplicate or fraudulent registrations.

“If a citizen has an interaction with a trusted entity, it’s good opportunity to get good information into the system,” Gloria said. “It eliminates these groups that come in and are paying people out in the field that really shouldn’t be registering people. It upholds the integrity of the system.”

With 30 election-related bills before the Legislature last session, The Nevada Independent has compiled all the bills, along with a summary of what the purpose of each was and whether it survived the legislative session, into one guide. Read on to find out what changes to expect to see at the ballot box in 2018.

APPROVED BY THE GOVERNOR:

AB45 - Secretary of State’s omnibus election bill: This bill, brought on behalf of the secretary of state’s office, made a number of different changes to election law in Nevada including:

  • Requiring a nongovernmental entity that sends a notice to a person indicating that they are or may not be registered to vote to indicate that the notice is not official elections mail from the secretary of state or a county or city clerk.
  • Providing that the last day to register to vote by mail is the fourth Tuesday before an election instead of the fifth Saturday and that the last day to register to vote by computer is the Thursday before early voting begins instead of the third Tuesday before an election.
  • Allowing clerks to not distribute sample ballots to people who register to vote less than 20 days before an election.
  • Requiring campaign finance reports to be filed on a quarterly basis during election years and no later than January 15 during off-election years starting in 2019, instead of the current system that bunches reporting around primary and general elections.
  • Requiring candidates to report their cash on hand at the end of the reporting period and itemize credit card transactions on their campaign finance reports starting in 2019.
  • Requiring that a person who intends to circulate an initiative or referendum petition to submit a form with their name and signature, the name of any political action committee formed to advocate for the passage of the initiative or referendum and the names of people authorized to withdraw the petition or submit a revised version.
  • Cleaning up citations to various provisions of federal law.

The bill passed the Assembly 41-1, with Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal opposed, and unanimously in the Senate. The governor signed the bill into law on June 9.

Thorley said that the Secretary of State’s office is excited about some of the changes to campaign finance laws, specifically cash-on-hand reporting and the requirement that candidates itemize their credit and debit card expenses.

“We’re just real appreciative of the Legislature this year putting that through. Under the current system you really just have to go and start doing additions and subtractions,” Thorley said of the current method to calculate a candidate’s cash on hand. “It will make it much easier for the public to know how much money a candidate has on hand.”

But he described the changes overall as “two steps forward, one step back” due to the change requiring quarterly reporting instead of the current system that clusters reporting around the primary and general elections. Administratively, he said quarterly reporting will be easier but will result in less frequent disclosures by candidates.

Gloria said that he’s hopeful that the provision in AB45 requiring third parties to note that their voter registration notices are not official election mail will cut down the number of calls from anxious voters about their registration status.

“I’m hoping that will help,” Gloria said. “We get hundreds of those calls. We have to be on the phone and be patient with voters and make them feel comfortable that their records are intact.”

AB478 - Changes to deadlines to register to vote by mail: This bill, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, changes the deadline to register to vote by mail for elections from the fifth Saturday before a primary or general election to the fourth Tuesday before the election. It also changes the deadline to register to vote by computer from the third Tuesday before a primary or general election to the Thursday before early voting begins. The legislation also provides an exemption to the requirement that county and city clerks distribute sample ballots before early voting begins for people who register to vote less than 20 days before the election. The measure passed the Assembly and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by the governor on May 23.

SB144 - Multiple changes to election law: This legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Pat Spearman, makes a number of various changes to election law in the state including:

  • Requiring that the secretary of state’s elections website is accessible on a mobile device and that such devices may be used to submit any information or form relating to elections.
  • Authorizing people who are at least 17 years old to pre-register to vote. Gloria said that 17-year-olds are already being pre-registered to vote, so this change just puts the authorization for that practice in state law.
  • Permitting people to sign a signature card when they register to vote rather than a roster. This change only applies to Douglas County, which uses signature cards at the polls instead of a signature roster.
  • Allowing certain voters to use a federal postcard application to register to vote or request a military-overseas ballot if the application is received by the seventh day before the election. Those voters may also request their ballot to be present if they do not receive their ballot and may cast their ballots by fax, email or other electronic system. Overseas-military voters can fill out one application that can act as both their voter registration form and an absentee ballot, so the change makes it so that the deadlines to register to vote and request an absentee ballot are the same, Thorley said.

The bill passed the Senate 12-9 and the Assembly 26-15, with all Republicans and Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores opposed to the bill. A conference committee on the bill stripped the provision authorizing county or city clerks to establish voting centers where anyone can vote on the day of the election from the final version of the bill, which was signed into law by the governor on June 12.

SB492 - Voting centers for early voting and election day: The bill, sponsored by the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, requires county and city clerks to establish one voting center on the day of the primary or general election and for early voting within the boundaries of an Indian reservation or Indian colony, allows a person to sign a signature card when registering to vote rather than a roster, mandates that clerks provide voting materials in additional languages and requires clerks to establish at least one permanent polling place for early voting. A final amendment in the Assembly removed the part of the bill that would have authorized county clerks to establish polling sites where anyone can vote on election day. The bill passed the Senate and Assembly on party lines and was signed by the governor on June 12.

AB21 - Ineligibility for office and false declarations of candidacy: This bill, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, bars candidates from taking office who have been determined by a court to have not met the qualifications for office. It also revises forms for a declaration or acceptance of candidacy and declaration of residency to include a statement that the candidate understands that knowingly and willfully filing such a document with false statements is a crime punishable as a gross misdemeanor and disqualifies the candidate from taking office. It also allows candidates to present the filing officer with alternative proof of residency if their rural or remote residency makes it difficult to produce typical documentation, requires that candidate’s campaign account be a separate account in a financial institution in the United States and mandates that PACs or political party campaign accounts maintain separate accounts if they receive a minimum of $1,000 in contributions. The bill passed the Assembly and Senate unanimously and was approved by the governor on June 9.

AB392 - Campaign ads: This bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, requires campaign ads in support of or in opposition to a candidate that include the official name and address or other official contact information of the state or another government entity to disclose in a conspicuous manner that it is not endorsed by or is an official publication of the state or political subdivision. The bill passed the Assembly 39-3 — with Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly and Republican Assemblymen Ira Hansen and Richard McArthur opposed — and made it out of the Senate unanimously. The legislation was approved by the governor on May 26.

AB418 - Voting secrecy and recounts: The bill, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, provides that voters will not be compelled under oath to reveal whom they voted for and clarifies that printed records of ballots from a mechanical recording device are not subject to anyone except particular people in the case of a special election. It also repeals the existing recount procedure and specifies that all recounts must include a count and inspection of all ballots. The bill passed the Assembly 29-13 and Senate 12-9, and the governor signed the bill on June 4.

Gloria said that the new recount procedure won’t create any logistical challenges for the county since it stopped sorting its mail ballots by precinct in 2016. With the system in place currently, Thorley said a recount in Nevada could take a few days at the most, where it could take several weeks in other states.

SB117 - Accommodations for disabled voters: The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer, requires each polling place to have a separate line for voters with disabilities or who cannot otherwise physically wait in line or allow such voters to move to the front of the line to vote. The legislation passed unanimously out of both houses and was signed by the governor on May 27. Thorley described it as a “good accessibility bill” and said that this is a practice that all jurisdictions are currently doing but that it is nice to have the requirement in state law.

SB447 - Absentee ballots for people with disabilities or the elderly: A bill sponsored by the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, SB447 allows registered voters with physical disabilities or who are over the age of 65 to apply for and receive an absentee ballot for all future elections. The bill passed unanimously out of both houses and was signed by the governor on June 1. Thorley said that the state is looking at a couple of different options about how to implement the system, whether to add it as a separate option on the absentee ballot request form or whether to create a separate permanent ballot request form.

SB491 - Leasing voting machines: Relatively uncontroversial, this bill allows county commissions with populations under 100,000 (which includes all outside of Clark and Washoe) to lease mechanical voting systems from the secretary of state’s office without an option to purchase. It would also prohibit counties or cities from using any voting system or device that isn’t approved by the secretary of state’s office.

AB519 - Appropriation to the secretary of state for voting machines: An appropriations bill allocated $4.5 million to Clark County, $1.7 million to Washoe County and a remaining $1.8 million that the rural counties can apply for a grant from to purchase new voting machines. Gloria said that the money will allow the county to purchase newer machines with larger screens and other upgrades that will help his staff and purchase enough electronic poll books to sustain the vote center-style voting system in 2018.

VETOED BY THE GOVERNOR OR DIED:

AB104 - Optional vote centers: Despite a substantial amendment removing nearly all of the bill outside provisions allowing county clerks to establish vote centers where anyone can vote, regardless of where they live in the county, this bill from Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel was entombed in the Assembly Committee on Ways & Means in late April where it stayed until the end of the session.

AB257 - Same-day registration and vote centers: An ambitious measure that would have required county clerks to establish vote center-style voting and required voter registration to happen on Election Day. The bill never came up for a full hearing and died in committee in April. Gloria said that same-day voter registration would have been difficult to implement from a logistical perspective. If the state wants to move toward this kind of system in the future, he said the state will likely need to invest in the technology necessary to ensure that registrations are being backed up in real time to a database. He also said that Nevada would likely need to switch to a top-down voter registration system with the secretary of state managing the database for voter registration.

AB272 - Opt-in vote centers: Despite a number of amendments and some Republican buy-in, Sandoval ultimately vetoed Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s AB272. The bill would have allowed county election officials to establish vote centers, required more polling places on Indian reservations and authorized them to extend the early voting period. In his veto message, Sandoval said that Nevada has “one of the most open and accessible election systems in the country,” and didn’t see a “compelling need to change it.”

AB293: Presidential primaries: A measure sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo allowing for state political parties to participate in presidential primary elections, rather than caucuses, failed to advance out of committee after a hearing in late March.

SB94: Major election reforms: An ambitious election reform measure proposed by Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford didn’t advance very far during the session. SB94, which would have extended voter registration deadlines, allowed for more early voting and authorized county clerks to register people to vote on the day of the election, was given a hearing in March and then failed to advance for the rest of the legislative session.

SB211: Opt-in presidential primaries: A bill that would have allowed state political parties to switch from the state’s cumbersome and at-times controversial presidential caucus system to primary elections died without a hearing during the 2017 session.

SB327: Automatic voter registration: Similar to the vetoed IP1, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford’s SB327 would have set in place policies required the Department of Motor Vehicles to implement automatic voter registration when a person applies for a driver’s license or identification card. The bill never received a hearing after being introduced in March, and was kept in a budget committee until the end of the legislative session.

IP1: Automatic voter registration: One of the first official casualties of the legislative session, Sandoval vetoed Initiative Petition 1 — which would implement a “motor voter” registration system in Nevada —  in mid March, sending the petition to the 2018 ballot. It would have required the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to transmit any necessary information to election officials to add a person to voter rolls or to update their information when they apply for a driver’s license or identification card.

AB226: Primary election changes: A measure sponsored by firebrand Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen (and co-sponsored by a handful of Democrats) undoing several 2015 changes to primary elections failed to advance out of the Assembly.

The bill would have revised existing law that allows for candidates to win a primary race and automatically be elected to office if no other major party candidates filed to run, and would have revised rules on primary elections for judicial candidates. The bill passed out of committee in April but failed to meet the deadline for first house passage.

SB93: Mail-only voting: Another election-related casualty was this bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, that would have allowed cities to hold mail-only voting for elections in odd-numbered years. It failed to advance after an initial hearing in February.

SB113: Ineligible candidates: A measure sponsored by Independent Sen. Patricia Farley that would have required candidates found to have violated residency requirements to reimburse campaign donations failed to gain much traction in the legislative session. The bill, which was never brought up for a vote after being heard in early March, would have also prohibited ineligible candidates who appear on a ballot from being seated.

AB274: National Popular Vote: Despite some out-of-state pressure, lawmakers again declined to sign Nevada into a contract that would tie the state’s six electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo and had a single hearing in late March before failing to advance past the first committee passage deadline.

NO HEARING, NO CHANCE:

AB164 - Voter ID: Democrats never gave a hearing to this bill sponsored by Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner, which would have generally required people to show a government-issued identification card before casting a ballot.

AB389 - Background checks for poll workers: The fates did not smile upon an ambitious measure by freshman Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant that would have required background checks for poll workers, requiring voter registration participants be legal U.S. citizens and voiding votes cast for eligible candidates — the bill never received a hearing throughout the course of the legislative session.

SB100 - Non-mandatory voter ID: This bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer, would have allowed county or city clerks to establish a system where voters could present a government-issued identification card as an alternative to the current system, where voters are required to verify their signature. It died without a hearing.

SB103 - Revises primary elections: This bill, which would have created a nonpartisan “blanket” primary system where voters would be able to vote for all candidates during a primary with the top two advancing to the general election, was declared dead in the water early on and never received a committee hearing.

SB319 - Cross-checking voter rolls: Another failed election-related bill sponsored by Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer, SB319 would have required the Department of Motor Vehicles and secretary of state’s office to cross-check the list of driver authorization cards — available to noncitizens — with the state’s list of registered voters. The bill never received a hearing.

SB331 - Cross-checking voter rolls: Similar to SB319, this failed measure by Republican Sen. Michael Roberson would have required the Department of Motor Vehicles and Secretary of State’s office to cross-check lists of registered voters with a list of driver authorization cards to weed out non citizens who may be registered to vote. It never received a hearing.

SB424 - Voter ID & Cross-checking voter rolls: Another election-related bill from Senate Republican Leader Michael Roberson, SB424 would have implemented requirements to show a government-issued identification card before voting, and required state agencies to cross-check voter rolls with lists of driver authorization card recipients in an attempt to discover if any non-citizens are registered voters.

Photo: People vote during primary election day at Sahara West Library on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

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