January 12, 2023
April Corbin Girnus
Nevada Current

Nevada Legislature earns ‘A’ for election reforms, but path forward less clear

A new report praises the Nevada State Legislature for expanding voter access and improving its election system, saying that in 2021 the state “managed to pass nearly every pro-voter improvement it could have.”

The Institute for Responsive Government in a report released Wednesday analyzed legislative efforts over the past two years to determine which states were making “pro-voter progress.” Representatives from IRG emphasized that their report is not a ranking of overall election procedures across all states but instead takes into consideration where each state was prior to recent legislative efforts.

Nevada was one of four legislatures to receive an “A” grade. Colorado, Delaware and Washington DC also earned the top grade.

Sam Oliker-Friedland, executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government, during a digital press event highlighted Nevada for implementing “larger, more prominent reforms” — specifically the move to mail ballots being automatically distributed to all active registered voters, as well as improving its automatic voter registration system.

The move to universal mail ballots was first passed in 2020 during an emergency special legislative session. It occurred at the urging of county elected officials who believed vote-by-mail was the best way to conduct a general election amid a pandemic. During the 2021 legislative session, the emergency procedures were made permanent.

Oliker-Friedland acknowledged that Democrats in Nevada passed both laws without any support from their Republican counterparts. But he added that lawmakers in the Silver State did come together to support less controversial election reforms. Specifically, there was unanimous bipartisan support to authorize the creation of a statewide voter registration database.

Nevada is one of the few states without a statewide voter registration database and currently relies on individual county databases — something election officials say is inefficient and cumbersome.

“I don’t know of an election director or local election official in the country that doesn’t have a list of minor, uncontroversial things that could be fixed in the code that would make their lives better,” added Oliker-Friedland. “That’s a great opportunity to come together — even where you’re super far apart on the big things, come together to fix the little things that we can all agree on to make the system more secure and more efficient, and in many cases even improve voter access through these minor changes.”

Research into the impact of expanding voter access has found that neither party is the clear beneficiary of reforms. Despite this, expanding voter access — or on the flip side “improving election integrity” — is increasingly debated within a partisan narrative.

“The data does not show that increasing vote by mail, increasing early voting days (or) improving voter registration procedures favors one party or another,” said Trey Grayson, a former secretary of state of Kentucky who advised IRG.

Grayson, a Republican, pointed out that Kentucky, which received a A- grade in the report, made it easier for voters to cast ballots and saw better outcomes for Republicans. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, for example, won by their widest margin ever.) Meanwhile, Colorado, which received an A grade in the report, has trended more blue since election reforms.

“We can cherry pick both sides but it’s pretty clear there’s not a partisan divide here,” said Grayson. “It ought to be ‘Let’s make it work better.’ Because we make elections operate more efficiently, and more securely, and frankly probably even cheaper, if we just work together. And the voters will be the winners.”

Will more reforms come?

Since the 2021 Legislative Session, Democrats have lost control of their trifecta in Carson City, making the possibility of additional election reforms less certain.

Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, who unseated Democrat Steve Sisolak, last year on the campaign trail promised to introduce an “Election Integrity Reform Package” to establish voter identification requirements and “eliminate ballot harvesting, end universal mail ballots, and create a bipartisan panel to oversee our elections system.”

The governor’s office did not respond to the Current’s request for additional details or comment.

Democratic Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar, who defeated a virulent election denier in the 2022 midterms, on the campaign trail said his first legislative priority would be to introduce a bill to criminalize attacks against election workers.

On Wednesday he confirmed that one of his office’s eight BDRs would make it a felony to threaten election officials and workers.

An additional five election-related BDRs from his office will “cover more improvements to the current system,” according to a spokesperson.

“Nevada runs some of the best elections in the nation and it’s great to see the hard work of our election workers and legislators recognized,” read a statement provided to the Current. “We won’t stop here – we’re working with lawmakers ahead of the legislative session to continue implementing bipartisan initiatives to improve our elections system, including legislation to protect our election workers who are so vital to our success.”

More than two dozen other bill draft requests relating to elections have already been filed ahead of the 2023 Legislative Session, which begins Feb. 6. Specifics for most of the BDRs are not yet publicly available.

One proposal, Senate Bill 54, sponsored by the senate committee on legislative operations and elections requires the secretary of state to prepare, maintain and publish an elections procedure manual and requires county and city clerks to comply with the manual. Another, Senate Bill 60, also sponsored by the senate committee, addresses numerous election procedures, including those related to filing for a nonpartisan office and ballot counting procedures used by counties.

Nye County became Nevada’s poster child for electoral dysfunction last year after its top election official first vowed they would hand count ballots, then pivoted to a messy, mostly performative hand count after being shut down by then-Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and losing a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Nevada.

Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of the civic engagement group Silver State Voices, said she sees areas for “potential clean up” of existing election law within Nevada.

She declined to elaborate on any specific legislation SSV will be lobbying for during the upcoming session, but she did note the group opposes voter-id laws on the grounds they suppress voters from vulnerable communities.

Persaud-Zamora said all of SSV’s policy positions are informed not by partisan outcomes but by the group’s experiences running ‘get out the vote’ campaigns and monitoring voter issues on the ‘election protection’ hotline.

“The political power has changed but we still have the mentality that voting rights is a nonpartisan issue,” she added. “We don’t subscribe to political rhetoric. We don’t see why any of the changes that we could potentially make should not be something that Democrats and Republicans can support.”

Published on January 12, 2023 on Nevada Current