Republican former Sen. Dean Heller officially launched a bid for governor on Monday, attempting to re-enter the political sphere he inhabited for decades before he was defeated in a 2018 re-election bid that found him struggling to navigate a fraught relationship with then-President Donald Trump.
At a launch event in a cramped and low-slung building in the town he grew up in, Carson City, he staked out firmly conservative positions on abortion and suggested a top Clark County election official should have been removed for his decisions in the 2020 election. Heller said he was OK with being done with politics after his loss three years ago but was inspired to return to the fray.
“Something happened, something changed. It was called 2020. 2020 happened, bad politicians started making bad decisions,” he said. “And I said to my family, ‘Enough is enough. We have to do something about this.’ So we're here today because I believe it's time to fire Steve Sisolak.”
His debut raises the stakes in a race considered a referendum on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic. Heller has already centered the lightning rod issue of COVID mitigation measures in his campaign, releasing a video over the weekend denouncing business shutdowns and rules that had his grandchildren playing soccer in masks.
In his announcement speech, he blamed Sisolak for putting Nevada “at the top of every bad list in America,” including for unemployment rates, crime rates, graduation rates and suicide rates, adding that “under this governor, families are being crushed.”
While not directly saying the 2020 election was invalid (he said “I know who the president of the United States is, we're not arguing that. What I am arguing is the process and how we got there), Heller criticized recent voting legislation and said “we made it easier to cheat in future elections.” He vowed that if he’s elected governor, “you're not going to wonder if elections are fair” and that his first order of business would be enacting voter ID by executive order.
“After the 2020 election, most Republicans believe President Trump had won that election. This is chaos and this chaos continues over and over,” Heller said.
He noted that as secretary of state, he removed a registrar who he thought was doing a poor job, and suggested he would have done the same with Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, accusing Gloria of saying “I am going to manipulate our machines” to accept a high number of signatures on ballots as valid.
“I would have been tempted to do that, yes. I would have petitioned the county commissioners to remove this guy," Heller said.
He said he wouldn’t mandate the vaccine against COVID, but noted that he was vaccinated himself, and said “I will emphasize and I will impress upon my fellow Nevadans that I think it's very important.”
Asked if he would support a law like Texas’ that allows private citizens to sue people who facilitate an abortion after six weeks of gestation, Heller said “I like what Texas did.” Polls consistently show Nevadans support abortion rights by significant margins, and voters in 1990 reaffirmed the legality of abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation.
“As governor, I'll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state, regardless with who's controlling the Legislature at the time,” he said.
Heller’s position on abortion has evolved over the years. In 2006, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that “I do back a woman's right to choose abortion. It is the conservative position."
At an event in Las Vegas later on Monday, Heller sought to clarify his comments about the Texas legislation, adding that he would want a ban on abortions past six weeks to include exceptions for rape or incest.
“I probably should clarify — I don't really know everything that was in that law,” he said. “I like the concept of it, but I know that they're going to have some problems, some issues, and frankly, it's going to be challenged, so let's see where it goes from there.”
Heller’s campaign materials cultivate an image of rural masculinity, with the video showing him racing in a stock car, touting his welding skills and hoisting bales of hay on his farm. A narrator describes him as “kind” and with “a smile that never quits,” but also “tough as nails,” and ends with the words, “That’s a governor.”
But to have that title, he’ll first have to triumph in a crowded primary, and without the campaign consultant team that has guided his previous campaigns — that firm, November Inc., was enlisted by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is also trying to chart a more mainstream Republican course through the race. Heller’s video subtly took aim at Lombardo’s complicated position on guns, featuring the former senator target shooting.
Heller’s campaign launch video also suggested that “defunding the police” was happening “right now in Nevada.” Asked about what that was referring to, Heller said, “I'm gonna have more information on that in the next couple of days. So I’d rather wait on that answer.”
Lombardo is focusing his campaign around promises to veto any new taxes, including an income tax. While an income tax has not been a discussion point in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Lombardo said that he incorporated the argument into his campaign because “the governor could advise the public to vote for it.”
“There's a perception, and if there's a perception there's maybe some truth to it,” Lombardo told The Nevada Independent on Saturday during an event celebrating a new campaign office in Las Vegas. “Why not fix it going forward? Why not remove the rumors and the perception and even the ability to commit fraud into the future, if you have the ability to do that.”
Better Nevada PAC, a pro-Lombardo entity, has already started targeting Heller over abortion, including by disseminating a video clip of a 2017 town hall when Heller said “I will protect Planned Parenthood.”
Others in the contest include Joey Gilbert, a firebrand lawyer and former boxer whose face and fists greet motorists from billboards along Reno freeways and in the airport. He was in Washington D.C. the day of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, has challenged the validity of the election and has been trying to persuade rural county commissions to retain him to sue the governor over the ongoing state of emergency.
Heller, for his part, told reporters about the incidents of Jan. 6 that he did not have a problem with people protesting, “but they crossed the line when they broke into that Capitol and did what they did … don't put me in that category of being in favor of what occurred on that day.”
Heller, 61, began his political career in 1990 as a state assemblyman, then served three terms as secretary of state and two terms in Congress before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2011 after then-Sen. John Ensign resigned.
He notched moderate bona fides in an increasingly purple Nevada in 2013, when he supported an immigration reform bill and voted in 2015 not to pursue a bill to unravel the DACA program, which gives legal status to people brought to the country illegally as children.
Acknowledging that it was fair to say he had a tenuous relationship with Trump at times, Heller said in Las Vegas on Monday that “I would love to have President Trump’s endorsement” in the governor’s race.
As a senator, he also struggled to navigate the issue of health care, voting to support a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act but also holding a press conference with then-Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2017 saying he could not support a bill that would take insurance away from tens of millions of Americans.
Following a 2018 campaign in which he was mocked for his fluid policy positions, he lost to Democratic political newcomer Jacky Rosen by a five percentage point margin.
Michael Fletcher, a small business owner and family friend of Heller’s, said he’s worried Sisolak’s connections to unions will lead to increased taxes that will raise prices on consumers and hurt small businesses.
“Sisolak’s not somebody I trust,” Fletcher said. “I think he’s too bought in by the unions. He’s at their will and I think that’s not good for Nevada.”
Josh Groth, a pilot who flies cargo internationally, came to the campaign kickoff with some friends. Heller’s announcement and stance on voter identification laws struck Groth.
“I think those are powerful things to be able to protect ... the right to maintain a democratically representative government, and be able to vote with integrity and ensure that we don't even leave any leeway for people to have skepticism about the integrity of that election system,” Groth said.
Groth said he is also worried about his two children’s education. During the pandemic, he watched as his children who are in elementary school sat in front of a computer screen for six hours a day — a learning method that he described as “not viable.”
“I think [Heller] will try and get to the point where he allows people to make individual choices and decisions for themselves, for their communities, for their families, and for the state,” Groth said. “I hope that we'll be able to get some policies that are enacted that enable us to be able to live the life that Nevada has always represented.”
Late last month, Lander County commissioners approved a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s firm, and on Wednesday, White Pine County commissioners approved a motion to engage with Gilbert’s firm “to explore options to protect the rights of White Pine County residents and businesses against outside entities.”
During the Wednesday county commission meeting, Gilbert railed against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, enacted by Sisolak in March 2020, as he pitched his services to the county.
“What I'm looking for is just to at least open up an interest and see if there's an appetite for pushing back against [Sisolak],” Gilbert told the commissioners over Zoom. “I have all the data, I have the experts, I have everybody to take the governor to court of law, and put my experts against whoever he has.”
Gilbert did not respond to a request for comment made through email on Wednesday afternoon and a call to his office regarding his involvement with the counties.
Gilbert, a 45-year-old retired professional boxer, has aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump and has openly questioned the validity of the 2020 election results, despite a lack of evidence of substantial fraud. He hopes to challenge Sisolak in 2022 but must first win in a crowded Republican primary that also includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee.
The commissioners discussed partnering with Gilbert’s firm to explore a lawsuit aimed at challenging the ongoing state of emergency, as Gilbert repeatedly said he had data proving that there should not be any public health emergency related to COVID-19 — though he did not describe any data in detail. He also called the emergency declaration a “power grab” by Sisolak.
Gilbert is representing the group in a lawsuit challenging California’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for university students and another lawsuit challenging approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children under the age of 16. An investigation conducted by Time Magazine found that the group spread misinformation about COVID-19 and had scammed people by collecting fees from them for medical consultations and prescriptions and then not delivering them.
Gilbert has previously filed several unsuccessful and ongoing lawsuits against Sisolak, the state and Clark County School District challenging mask mandates and other restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — including a lawsuit filed in November 2020 on behalf of Central Cinema of Ely in White Pine County challenging the constitutionality of Sisolak’s emergency directives.
“I just think that this stuff with the kids, and with anything that's happening with them — testing, masking, any vaccines, anything like that — should be a matter of choice … and not the governor forcing any kind of mandate down anybody's throat,” Gilbert told the commissioners.
Gilbert suggested two different options to help the county push back against COVID-19 restrictions: He could represent a business or two that are “tired of having to wear a mask or tired of their employees having to get tested or vaccinated,” or he could represent the county itself.
Gilbert noted that litigation on behalf of the county, rather than a local businesses, might have a diminished chance of succeeding at the district court level.
“We want to sue [Sisolak] as a county, we'd have to sue him in Carson City. That makes things, the stakes a little higher because I don't know how the judges in Carson City would act,” Gilbert said. “I'm pretty, pretty sure I know how the judge in White Pine County would act because I've been in front of him and he's been nothing but excellent, with regards to how he feels that this emergency has just been elongated and continued for far too long.”
White Pine County is under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Seventh Judicial District Court, which also serves Eureka County and Lincoln County. The court’s two judges, Steve Dobrescu and Gary Fairman, both previously served as prosecutors in White Pine County.
In a 4-1 vote, White Pine county commissioner Richard Howe voted against the motion to engage with Gilbert’s firm.
“I don't think we as a county should jump on board with your law firm and get in the middle of a political firestorm,” Howe said.
Following Howe’s comments, Gilbert seemed to step back from his requests of the county.
“I don't care if he — I've got so much work to do. I don't even necessarily need. I just am trying to be available if you need me,” Gilbert said. “There's other firms you could use. I just think you need to challenge this guy's emergency.”
However, Commissioner Ian Bullis said that Gilbert approached him as part of Gilbert’s efforts to push back on COVID-19 restrictions from the state.
“He has been looking for entities willing to partner with him and join the fight, and he wanted an opportunity to share his thoughts with us. And I said, ‘Go for it,’” Bullis said.
The county’s decision to engage with Gilbert’s law firm did not include approval of any specific civil actions or of a retainer agreement with the firm — meaning the county’s relationship with Gilbert does not involve the exchange of any money.
White Pine County, which includes the City of Ely, is located centrally along the state’s eastern border and is home to roughly 9,000 people. In the 2020 election, 78 percent of the roughly 4,400 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump.
Similar effort in Lander County
Gilbert's proposals have been making headway — but also raising questions — in other rural counties.
During an Aug. 26 meeting of the Lander County Board of Commissioners, several attendees argued with the commissioners and county manager about the purpose of a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm that was approved by commissioners during the meeting.
Lander County resident Jenny Martin said the contract with Gilbert seemed “disingenuous,” and multiple attendees raised issues based on Gilbert’s ongoing campaign for governor.
At the meeting, County Manager Bert Ramos said Gilbert’s legal team was being hired for a specific purpose, but repeatedly declined to identify that purpose and said the county had attorney-client privilege with the firm.
“What we're looking into is attorney-client privilege. So we cannot put that on the agenda to be approved because then we've lost attorney-client privilege,” Ramos said.
In response to a public records request seeking a copy of the county’s retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm, the county’s recorder told The Nevada Independent that her office has not yet received the contract from the county manager. And Ramos, the county manager, has not responded to requests for comment on the proposed election audit, nor to a records request filed on Tuesday for the retainer.
Gilbert also has connections with the county from earlier this year. In May, the county hosted a “patriotic social gathering” that featured Gilbert as a guest speaker and celebrated the county’s membership in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — an organization founded by a former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who has ties to a far-right militia group called the Oath Keepers.
Gilbert was also scheduled to be a guest speaker at a similar gathering in rural Elko County, but ultimately missed the event.
Lander County, which includes Battle Mountain, is located in central Nevada and is home to fewer than 6,000 people. In the 2020 election, nearly 80 percent (2,198 votes) of the 2,765 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump, and all five of the county’s commissioners are Republican.
State election officials and the Department of Justice intervened last week to thwart an attempt by Lander County commissioners to audit the county’s electronic voting machines, which hold physical voting records from the 2020 general election. The county’s election official is required under federal law to retain and preserve those records for 22 months after the election.
At the same time, county commissioners are also considering converting to entirely paper elections — largely viewed as more time-consuming and error-prone — by restricting use of all electronic machines in the election process.
In August — more than nine months after the 2020 general election — Lander County Manager Bert Ramos requested to the county clerk (at the direction of the county commission) that all of the county’s 26 electronic voting machines be transferred from the clerk’s office into the custody of the county manager’s office.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Lander County Clerk Sadie Sullivan confirmed that the commissioners intended to conduct a post-election audit of the machines in order to determine whether they had been tampered with or if they had been connected to the internet (the machines run on a closed system and are certified by the federal government to not rely on internet connectivity). Sullivan also said the county hired a legal team to examine the machines.
The county manager did not reply to multiple messages asking for comment from The Nevada Independent, and four of the five county commissioners did not reply to emails seeking comment.
Following the request, the Department of Justice and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske each sent letters to Sullivan, who oversees the county’s elections, outlining the federal constraints on post-election audits and stating that the machines should not be transferred. A spokesman for Attorney General Aaron Ford said the office is "closely monitoring the situation unfolding in Lander County."
“As the voting records currently reside in the voting machines, and the election was not contested, those voting machines are not to be transferred to any other organization or entity in any situation, except as provided by law,” Cegavske wrote.
The Department of Justice letter also warns that transferring the ballots to someone other than an election official could pose a security risk.
“Where elections records are no longer under the control of elections officials, this can lead to a significant risk of the records being lost, stolen, altered, compromised, or destroyed,” the guidance from the department states. “This risk is exacerbated if the election records are given to private actors who have neither experience nor expertise in handling such records.”
The guidance notes that “in a number of jurisdictions around the United States, an unusual second round of examinations have been conducted or proposed,” such as the post-election audit occurring in Arizona.
Sullivan said that she’s heard discussions of other Nevada counties looking to follow Lander County’s lead.
“That's kind of where all the clerks are holding their breath and hoping that they don't have to go through what we've been going through,” Sullivan said. “We've all just wanted it to be done, you know, legally.”
The Department of Justice letter sent on Aug. 25 to Sullivan, all five county commissioners and Cegavske contains a set of guidelines on how federal laws constrain post-election audits. The guidance outlines how the Civil Rights Act of 1960 requires state and local election officials, such as Sullivan, to retain and preserve all voting records for 22 months after any general, special or primary election. That requirement raises issues when records are transferred to other officials not responsible for elections even within the same county, such as a county manager.
“The Department interprets the Civil Rights Act to require that covered elections records ‘be retained either physically by election officials themselves, or under their direct administrative supervision,’” the guidance states.
The guidance also states that “there are federal criminal penalties attached to willful failures to comply with the retention and preservation requirements of the Civil Rights Act.”
In his request to transfer the machines, Ramos, the county manager, cited a Nevada statute that states that a board of county commissioners has the ability to take custody of mechanical voting systems or mechanical recording devices when they are not in use for an election.
But at an Aug. 26 meeting of the county commissioners, Ramos said that more work was needed to figure out who should possess the voting machines.
“If there is another NRS, and there is something that disputes this, we need to continue up this chain until we find the proper custody,” Ramos said. “I don't want there to be this outside perception of us marching in, and we're gonna take this.”
Lander County District Attorney Theodore Herrera also said during the meeting that the commissioners and county manager did not try to “seize” any voting machines.
Cegavske’s letter points to a different Nevada statute that states ballots are only to be inspected in the case of a contested election, and there are currently no 2020 elections involving Lander County votes being contested. Contested elections are formal legal proceedings that require formal grounds for contest, such as evidence of illegal votes or malfeasance by the election board. Suspicions of fraud are not proper grounds for a contest.
Lander County, which includes Battle Mountain, is located in central Nevada and is home to fewer than 6,000 people. In the 2020 election, nearly 80 percent (2,198 votes) of the 2,765 votes cast in the presidential race were for Donald Trump, and all five of the county’s commissioners are Republican.
Earlier this year, the county hosted a “patriotic social gathering,” featuring Joey Gilbert — a Reno attorney and a Republican candidate for governor, who has said he believes Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election and who attended the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol. The commissioners and several attendees also discussed Gilbert at length during the Aug. 26 meeting, after the county manager confirmed the county has a $50,000 contract with Gilbert and two other lawyers. However, Ramos during the meeting repeatedly declined to comment on the purpose of the contract, saying the county has attorney-client privilege.
Sullivan said she is unaware whether the legal team with Gilbert is the same one the county hired in connection with the proposed audit of the election machines.
During their Aug. 26 meeting, the Lander County commissioners considered converting the county’s elections from electronic voting machines to running entirely on paper, but the item was tabled when the county’s clerk, who oversees the local elections, said that the change would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“They have to provide electronic device[s] for them to be able to vote, period. There [are] no ifs, ands or buts. We have to follow those federal laws,” Sullivan said during the meeting.
The ADA states that jurisdictions conducting elections for federal offices, such as president, must provide voting systems that are accessible to citizens with disabilities at each polling location and that states can satisfy this requirement through use of a “direct recording electronic voting system or other voting system equipped for individuals with disabilities.”
Though the item to discuss the move away from electronic systems identified the change as one strictly from electronic voting machines to paper ballots, Sullivan said during the meeting that the conversion would involve the removal of all electronic devices from the election process.
“They would like it to also not just be paper ballot voting, we would be … counting, hand counting it,” Sullivan said. “It wouldn't be going through any mechanical device.”
Lander County — and all other Nevada jurisdictions, except Carson City — use Dominion Voting Systems, which are certified by the federal government to not rely on internet connectivity and use paper records. The mechanical systems record votes on paper inside of the machines to ensure there is a paper trail after elections in case an audit is needed, and the voting records are also contained on a hard drive within the machine. If Lander County transitions to all paper elections, votes would no longer be recorded or counted by such mechanical devices.
Sullivan raised questions about how the process of tallying votes by hand would unfold.
“How in the world … are we going to do the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, slash, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, slash, like, that's not going to work,” Sullivan told The Nevada Independent. “So, what type of process or procedures … would be beneficial or, you know that there's not a human error?”
The secretary of state’s website describes a “voting system” as the equipment used to create ballots, cast and count votes and display election results. That system includes the machines Ramos requested to transfer into the custody of his office.
“Nevada's voting system is a ‘standalone system’ that is not connected to a network, the Internet, and [does] not have wireless connection capabilities,” the site states. “Before any component can be used in Nevada's voting system, it must first go through a series of tests and audits. Additionally, each component maintains a chain of custody with tamper evident security seals and access limited to authorized personnel.”
Sullivan also said that the secretary of state’s office requested an item a week before the meeting to discuss voter outreach with the county commissioners. She noted that the intent of the secretary of state’s outreach campaign is to ensure elected officials across the state are provided with “clear, factual and non-partisan information” about the state’s election systems.
“We need to educate everyone on what needs to be followed legally,” Sullivan said at the meeting. “Once educated, then there's a process that … you could put this on the ballot and let the voters vote to see if they want to do all paper.”
The commissioners agreed to table the item as soon as it came up for discussion during the meeting, but Commissioner Patsy Waits wrote in an email that she expects the item to be on the agenda again at a future meeting.
The commissioners next meet on Sept. 9, and Sullivan said it's her understanding that the topic of paper ballots will come up at that meeting.
Lyon County commissioners voted 3-2 on Thursday to rename the county’s justice complex after former President Donald Trump.
The commission’s chair, Vida Keller, introduced the proclamation less than a month after the board of commissioners considered, then rejected, renaming a county road after Trump following opposition to the cost of the changes.
Keller, along with commissioners Dave Hockaday and Ken Gray, voted in favor of the renaming, while commissioners Robert Jacobson and Wes Henderson voted against the proclamation. Henderson argued that the county needed an official policy on naming buildings before the county could honor Trump in such fashion.
“I am a supporter of President Trump. I think he did good things for this country and for our state,” Henderson said. “I think we may want to honor him in some way or fashion, but I do think we need to have a policy in place first.”
The proclamation points to Trump’s immigration policies and his progress in filling federal judicial vacancies — including appointments of three Supreme Court justices, 54 appellate court judges and 174 District Court judges — as reasons for the renaming.
“The Lyon County Board of Commissioners recognizes that President Donald J. Trump ended asylum fraud, shut down human smuggling traffickers, and solved the humanitarian crisis across the Western Hemisphere,” the proclamation states.
However, the language stating that Trump “solved the humanitarian crisis across the Western Hemisphere” was struck from the proclamation, after some commissioners raised concerns with the phrasing. Jacobson called it “extremely far-fetched” to say that anyone has solved the humanitarian crisis.
Lyon County commissioners previously voted 4-1 in favor of renaming Old Dayton Valley Road in Dayton "Pres. Trump Way," but cited community opposition before voting 3-2 against the change two weeks later. Some residents opposed spending $8,000 for physical changes, including street and building signage. The road renaming would have given new addresses to several buildings in Dayton, including Dayton Elementary School.
Hockaday said that the expenses associated with the renaming of the justice complex — which houses the county’s sheriff's office and jail, as well as district, municipal and justice courts — would be entirely covered by private donations, and Keller said she would personally pay for a new plaque for the building.
“It will not cost a taxpayer dollar. I will donate that money to the county,” Keller said.
During Thursday’s meeting, some members of the public expressed concerns about the renaming of the building, calling it a partisan move that would contribute to political divisiveness and arguing that the focus on the renaming detracts from other county business.
“As Commissioner Gray indicated, there was quite a lively discussion over the naming of the road, and the opposition to it was pretty clear from Democrats and Republicans,” Leandra Carr, who ran for a commission seat as a Democrat in 2020, said during the meeting. “There's so much going on, and it is such a divisive issue and such a partisan project that I would ask that you please put together the policy for naming buildings first and let this play out.”
Keller rebuffed the concerns public commenters raised about Trump and the county’s action, and she said that other buildings in the county have been named after “various people for various reasons,” including after figures that did not live in Lyon County.
“I don't think we have ignored any county business that needed to be taken care of,” Keller said. “As far as a right to name a building, and after who, yes the commission does have that right.”
Several other communities across the country have also taken action to honor the former president through the renaming of roads.
Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation earlier this year to name a stretch of highway in the Oklahoma Panhandle after Trump. And in January, a rural Virginia councilman proposed renaming a road "Donald Trump Avenue."
Similar to those other rural locations, Trump has received consistent electoral support in Lyon County since he first ran for office in 2016, garnering 69 percent of the vote in the 2020 election and 67 percent of the vote in 2016. President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton won 28 percent and 26 percent of votes in those elections, respectively.
Lyon County’s newly renamed Donald J. Trump Justice Complex is located at 911 Harvey Way in Yerington.
Citing his law enforcement credentials and a need to end one-party rule in state government, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Monday officially launched his gubernatorial campaign with promises to veto tax increases and roll back many of the policies instituted under Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democrats.
Lombardo, 58, officially announced his campaign for governor at a speech at Rancho High School in Las Vegas — where he graduated from in 1980 — and promised that if elected governor, he would serve as a check on legislative Democrats on issues from taxes to elections and education.
“I have been elected twice as a conservative in our state's bluest county. I have never compromised on principles to get elected, and won’t do so now,” said Lombardo, whose previous sheriff campaigns were in nonpartisan races. “Today, I'm standing here to announce my candidacy for governor, because if we don't put an end to the single-party rule eroding our state of the values, laws and opportunities to make Nevada great, we won't have a lot left to fight for.”
Much of Lombardo’s speech on Monday previewed his coming campaign messaging — including calling Sisolak the “most partisan governor in Nevada history” and saying Sisolak has copied the “worst policies of some of the most liberal governors in the country.” Lombardo also promised to block any effort to teach critical race theory in public schools, to back efforts requiring identification to vote and rolling back several Democrat-backed election changes including ballot collection and expanded mail voting.
Lombardo, who plans to embark on a statewide campaign launch tour this week, joins what may become a crowded Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in the 2022 midterms.
Other announced candidates include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing potential bids. Former Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, once considered a potential candidate, has endorsed Lombardo.
Lombardo, who is in his second term as Clark County sheriff, hinted that one of his major campaign themes will be his law enforcement experience. He said that “police reform is needed” but that legislators were moving too fast and creating an “environment where the police are handcuffed.”
“What we currently have is ... a sense up in Carson City that we're more concerned with felons’ rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” he told reporters after the event. “That's a paradigm, or that's a program that just doesn't breed success into the future. We have to change that.”
After his Las Vegas kickoff, Lombardo headed to a Reno wine bar in the evening, holding a meet-and-greet at the Napa-Sonoma restaurant. He pitched his candidacy to the roughly 40 people in attendance, mirroring his rhetoric in Las Vegas, and took questions from attendees on elections, guns, education and more.
Former educator Sandy Horning, 77, said she appreciated Lombardo’s background in law enforcement and had a strong grasp on improving schooling across the state.
“He knows what’s going on in the streets … he’s very impressive with education,” the Reno resident said. “I think he hit all the high spots.”
Carson City high schooler Jessica Gonzalez, 16, said she liked Lombardo’s speech but sought more detail on what his campaign hopes to achieve.
“I wanted him to go more in depth on how he’s going to defend our rights and how he’s going to explain to the younger people how he is going to reach them,” she said.
A cadre of Democrat-aligned groups including the Democratic Governors Association and Nevada Democratic Victory issued statements on Monday panning Lombardo’s announcement. DGA Executive Director Noam Lee accused him of walking “every partisan ideological line as he’s pretended to represent the constituents he promised to serve and protect while trying to avoid estranging the Republican base he needs for his pending political career.”
Asked by reporters on Monday if he would seek the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Lombardo said “seek” is an “arbitrary word” but would accept the former president’s endorsement if offered.
“If I receive it, I'll embrace it. Sure,” he said. “You know, anybody that's willing to endorse me and what I believe in, and the direction I want to go in, I'm not going to turn them away.”
In addition to pledging to veto any new taxes, Lombardo said he would oppose any efforts to introduce a state income tax, raise property taxes or any other efforts to “advance public policy that would make Bernie Sanders blush.”
Asked whether he would seek to repeal or lower any existing state taxes, Lombardo said that would be a “matter of evaluation as we move forward” and promised to evaluate all existing tax sources. He said the state needed to develop a “tax environment” to attract other industries outside the casino industry to help to diversify the state’s economy.
“You have to be living in a cave not to see that the casino, the mother milk of our economy, will not continue to support us in perpetuity into the future,” he said.
In his remarks, Lombardo pledged to “undo the reckless partisan policies out of Carson City, and replace them with election law that is transparent, honest and fair.”
He promised to support requiring some form of identification to vote, eliminate ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” where non-familial individuals are allowed to turn in mail ballots, and to repeal the “new practice of mailing ballots to people who did not request them.”
That’s a reference to AB321, a bill permanently expanding and enshrining expanded mail voting used in the 2020 election that passed on party lines in the 2021 legislative session. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak earlier this month, making Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely all-mail voting system.
Lombardo also said he would support a bipartisan “election integrity commission” to oversee elections and “guarantee fairness,” and the creation of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new boundary lines for congressional and legislative districts.
Asked by reporters if he believed that the 2020 election in Nevada was accurate, Lombardo said he wasn’t “privy” to the data but believed the current electoral system “makes it easy for people to commit fraud.”
“Your question is, ‘Do I think there was fraud in everything?’ I'm not even going to give you an answer on that,” he said. “My concern is moving forward and how we can better make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
The Trump campaign and Nevada Republican Party filed lawsuits and repeatedly made claims of fraud in the weeks and months following the state’s 2020 election. All of the lawsuits failed to make headway in state and federal courts, and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office released two reports finding no evidence of “wide-spread fraud” in the 2020 election.
Among the challenges Lombardo will face in a Republican primary is defending himself over his 2019 decision to withdraw from the 287(g) collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His decision came after a lawsuit from the ACLU and a subsequent court ruling in California that determined “detainers” — holding people in local custody for extra time to allow ICE to detain them — constituted a new arrest and violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless arrests.
Immigrant advocates, who argue that local police should stay out of immigration enforcement so immigrants can report crime to police without fear of detainment or deportation during the interaction, have said that Metro continues less-formal collaborations with ICE absent the title. Lombardo said that after withdrawing from the program, Metro “dedicated more internal resources to … identifying and deporting violent criminals.”
“There's been a lot of rhetoric out there that I have created a sanctuary jurisdiction. That is absolutely not true,” Lombardo said. “What we did is adjust, moved resources and addressed the problem to move forward, versus backing up and say, ‘We raised our hands and gave up.’”
Lombardo has also struck a more moderate tone on firearm issues, telling the Nevada Firearms Coalition during a question-and-answer panel last week that he supports universal background checks on firearm purchases, opposed “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity magazines.
“I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “This isn't rhetoric. I've carried a gun every day for more than 30 years in the Army as a cop and as your sheriff. I will always support the rights of law-abiding citizens to responsibly own and carry guns.”
Policing and criminal justice reforms
Lombardo took aim at Democratic state leaders for being “more concerned with felons rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” and said he would distinguish himself from his Republican primary opponents by taking the “law and order lane.”
“Yes, police reform is needed ... I appreciate that and we have looked at that, but it's adapting too fast,” he said. “We have created an environment where the police are handcuffed and have an inability to do their job.”
Lawmakers in 2019 passed a comprehensive bill aimed at reducing penalties for certain crimes and ultimately reducing the prison population. The goal is to use the hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated savings for “reinvestment” activities, such as better preparing inmates for reentering the community.
In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to decriminalize low-level traffic offenses on near-unanimous votes and decriminalized jaywalking unanimously, making it a civil infraction without the possibility of arrest. On policing, they passed a bill requiring ample warning to protesters before deploying tear gas, calling for data collection on the demographics of people stopped for traffic violations and requiring police maintain an “early warning system” for “bias indicators or other problematic behavior” among officers.
Progressives have characterized the policing reforms as largely just codifying Metro’s existing policies and not going far enough, while police agencies and certain police unions have framed them as demoralizing for officers and part of an anti-police narrative.
Lombardo also addressed interactions between police and protesters — an issue that came up in the summer of 2020 amid frequent racial justice demonstrations.
“While Portland, Seattle in Baltimore gave into rioters, looters and vandals, we instituted a zero tolerance policy for violence,” Lombardo said. “Let me be clear, I will always stand up for the rights of anyone to peacefully protest. But if you intend to bring harm to our people, our communities, or those visiting in our community, you will face the full force of the law.”
At least six people face charges for graffiti, breaking windows and other property damage to a federal courthouse at one of the protests in Las Vegas last summer. Las Vegas police say they handled 318 protests last year, and updated their police and protest response protocols that year, including only deploying pepper spray if approved by a supervisor.
Lombardo expressed support for the continued use of the death penalty as a way to curb crime, as the Clark County district attorney's office is currently pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Floyd would be the first execution in the state since 2006.
“I believe that there's a need for it,” Lombardo said. “I believe that it's a natural deterrent in the mindset of a criminal, and it's a solution for individuals that have committed egregious crimes against society.”
Lawmakers made the most significant progress to date on an effort to repeal the death penalty during the 2021 session, as members of the Assembly voted 26-16 along party lines to pass a bill that would abolish the penalty. However, the measure was spiked by the governor and Democratic leaders in the Senate, after Sisolak said that the penalty was warranted in extreme circumstances.
Lombardo criticized Sisolak on education policy, saying the Democratic governor has failed to provide a plan to reduce class size and opposes school choice, although the sheriff offered only broad-strokes statements about his own plans for K-12 and higher education.
On his website, Lombardo says he supports school choice and wants to expand Opportunity Scholarships, a tax credit-funded program that gives lower-income students scholarships to attend private K-12 schools. Democrats backed legislation in 2021 to preserve funding for the program as part of a compromise to raise taxes on the mining industry, after previously barring new entrants to the program.
Lombardo also nodded to building out workforce development programs.
“We must bring back and focus on trades so Nevada can attract good paying manufacturing jobs, and we must do a better job of keeping our best and brightest right here in Nevada,” Lombardo said.
He also invoked a topic that in recent months has exploded in popularity on conservative media outlets such as Fox News and has spurred states to limit how teachers approach issues such as racism and sexism — critical race theory. State officials have said the decades-old academic study area of critical race theory is not included in state academic standards, although concepts such as social justice and diversity are.
“As governor, I will block any time to force critical race theory on our public school children,” Lombardo said. “We can teach our children to respect each other, and treat everyone with dignity.”
Lombardo, the son of an Air Force Veteran, was born in Japan before moving to Las Vegas in 1976 and graduating from Rancho High School in 1980. Hired by Metro in 1988 after serving in the Army and National Guard from 1980 to 1986, Lombardo steadily rose through the ranks of the state’s largest police force before being hired as assistant sheriff in 2011.
After nearly 30 years at Metro, Lombardo opted to run for Clark County sheriff in 2014. Described as a “policy wonk” by the Las Vegas Sun, Lombardo won endorsements from multiple former sheriffs including Doug Gillespie, Bill Young and Ralph Lamb, and ultimately won the nonpartisan race on a narrow 51 to 49 percent split over Retired Metro Captain Larry Burns — who was endorsed by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file Metro officers.
Lombardo also attracted international attention and notoriety as the face of law enforcement response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 60 people dead and nearly 550 people injured. For weeks, Lombardo oversaw the investigation and provided information to the public and news media on details of the mass shooting, though his office fought efforts by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to release public records related to the event.
Lombardo won re-election to a second term in 2018, winning the nonpartisan race outright with more than 73 percent of the vote. His first campaign ad included appearances by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, and prominent state Democrats including former state Sen. Yvanna Cancela and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Wednesday he hopes to attend former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s Basque Fry in August as Senate Republicans hope to win back the majority in the midterm elections by focusing on conservative issues that they argue resonate with Latinos in Nevada and other swing states.
“I’m looking at that,” Graham said. “I don’t know if I can make it. Adam’s a good guy and would be a good candidate for us out there.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, would not rule out attending.
So far, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is the only confirmed Republican senator set to attend. Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he was invited but can’t make it due to his schedule. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he has no plans to attend. Both have attended in the past.
Laxalt, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, is considering running against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), who is seeking re-election after her first term in office.
Scott confirmed that he had spoken with Laxalt, former Sen. Dean Heller and other potential candidates that he would not name. Heller now appears to be laying the groundwork to run for governor.
“I've talked to quite a few people in Nevada,” Scott said. “Ultimately, it's a personal decision whether people want to run or not.”
President Joe Biden won Nevada by just two percentage points and the NRSC is eyeing Cortez Masto’s seat as it looks to pick up the one seat Republicans need to break the Senate’s 50-50 party split. For the moment, Democrats control the chamber through Vice President Kamala Harris, who can break tie votes.
On Thursday, the NRSC released a poll conducted in Spanish of 1,200 Latino voters in eight swing states, including Nevada, that it believes shows that Latinos are allied with the GOP on issues such as immigration and capitalism.
While the poll only included 300 Latinos from Nevada, Scott argued that the survey shows that the GOP can connect with Latinos and win them over. That's something Scott prides himself in doing after winning a close Senate race in 2018. Scott beat his Democratic opponent by 10,033 votes.
“If you look at this poll, they're like a typical Republican,” Scott said Wednesday. “They're aspirational. They have a faith in God. They care about freedom. They care about opportunity. They're not into big government. They want the rule of law, and they want good schools. That's a Republican.”
Jazmin Vargas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said that the poll didn’t reflect the unpopularity of Republicans’ policies with Latinos. She cited Republican opposition to the American Rescue Plan, which was enacted in March and provided $4 billion for Nevada and direct payments of $1,400 for most individuals.
“A fake poll from the NRSC won’t change Senate Republicans’ record of attacking Latinos’ access to affordable care, their refusal to support DREAMers, and their unanimous vote against a coronavirus relief package that has provided direct economic relief to millions of Latino families and small businesses,” Vargas said, adding that a poll in April showed that 76 percent of Latinos approve of the law.
“Latinos will hold every Senate Republican accountable for their toxic agenda in November next year,” Vargas continued.
Conducted by OnMessage Inc., a Virginia-based Republican political polling and consulting firm, the NRSC poll also had respondents from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The survey found that 63 percent of those polled agreed that “capitalism is the best form of government because it gives people the freedom to work and achieve their potential.”
The question reflects Republicans’ strategy to paint Democrats as too liberal. It also comes after the leadership of the Nevada Democratic Party was taken over by a slate of Democratic Socialist candidates in March.
On immigration, 72 percent agreed that the government “should do what is necessary to control our southern border and stop the surge of illegal immigration happening right now.”
Another 69 percent opposed “allowing illegal immigrants to receive the same welfare and unemployment benefits as citizens.”
Fifty-eight percent also said they agreed that too many people were living off of government assistance.
Scott, who also served as Florida governor, said he planned to use the poll to show his fellow Republicans what is possible when it comes to talking to Latino voters.
“I did it in my races, so there's no reason we can't do it across the country,” Scott said.
Scott said he did not know if there would be a contentious primary for the GOP nomination in Nevada, but he said that tough primaries can help fortify a candidate for the general election.
Asked whether he believes former President Donald Trump would play a role, Scott said he hopes he does, adding that Trump remains popular with GOP voters.
“If you look around the country, his agenda is very popular,” Scott said. “So I think he can be helpful.”
Trump’s endorsement could give any contender an edge in the primary, and Laxalt, who won Trump’s backing for his 2018 gubernatorial bid, helped lead an effort in Nevada to spread false claims that improprieties in the state's election led to Trump’s defeat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also eyed Laxalt for the Senate race.
But with a recent rise in nonpartisan voter registration, a candidate that embraces the idea that the election was stolen could run the risk of turning off independent voters in a general election.
Graham said that Trump and other Republican candidates would be wise to move on from the 2020 election.
“I think there comes a point where you need to pivot forward,” Graham said. “Generally speaking, 2022 is about ‘what are you going to do for me and my family.’”
Graham said Trump is not the first politician to have a hard time letting go of a campaign.
“He's got some legitimate concerns, but he will be well-served, I think, by looking forward,” Graham said. “Time will tell.”
Progressives and public health advocates backing legislation to establish a state-managed public health insurance option in Nevada say it will boost health care affordability and accessibility.
Opponents, including the health care industry’s biggest names and local chambers of commerce, argue that a public option would lead to higher health care costs and threaten the state’s already fragile health care system.
Much of the public debate over the bill, SB420, so far has been simplified into sweeping statements like these, which are now being amplified by national organizations throughadcampaigns targeted at everyday Nevadans. Supporters and opponents of the legislation have also released polls showing how politically popular or unpopular they believe the bill to be in an effort to persuade lawmakers to vote for or against the bill.
Less attention, however, has been paid to the bill’s fine print in an effort to understand what kind of effect it actually might have on the state’s health insurance landscape, provider network, uninsured population and the overall cost of health care.
At its core, the legislation would require insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan. While the plans would resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, the legislation would require them to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing the plans’ average premium costs by 15 percent over four years. The first year the public option plans would be offered is 2026.
The full impact of the bill likely won’t be known until the state conducts an actuarial study of the proposal. But, in the absence of such a study, The Nevada Independent took some time to talk last week with Sabrina Corlette, a research professor, founder and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, about the potential benefits and drawbacks of the legislation.
While her colleague, Katie Keith, gave a presentation on Nevada’s health care landscape during the bill’s hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week, Corlette said she has not been involved with the bill and reviewed the legislation at the Independent’s request.
Corlette said that while she’s skeptical of the industry’s argument that creating a lower-cost public option will lead to cost-shifting elsewhere in the health care system, it’s difficult to know how negotiations between insurers and providers will play out. She also argued that if Nevada’s goal is reducing its uninsured rate, there may be other ways for it to “get a bigger bang for [its] buck.”
“The devil is very much in the details,” she said.
The bill passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday on a party line vote. It will head next to the Senate Finance Committee to review the bill’s fiscal impact.
The below conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were your first impressions reading the bill?
It is certainly within the public option rubric that I'm seeing being debated in other states. There's lots of different flavors of the public option, but, in terms of what I saw in the bill, this is consistent with what I'm seeing.
It's important to understand what the goals are, and I would say that times have changed because of the change here at the federal level and with the passage of the American Rescue Plan and these enhanced [federal] subsidies that help people who are up and down the income scale for marketplace plans. The state should certainly take that into account, and lawmakers and policymakers in the state should be — whatever they want to achieve — thinking about it in the context of the federal changes.
I do think that even with the federal subsidies, there is certainly merit in taking a look at premiums, the cost of care, what's driving the increases in premiums every year, and trying to address those cost drivers and bring down overall health care costs, not just for people in the [Affordable Care Act] marketplaces, but for small employers and large employers. I think everybody's struggling from high and rising health care costs.
What I'm trying to say is, if your goal is to reduce the number of uninsured in the state of Nevada, I am not sure that this bill is going to have a really dramatic impact. If your goal is to send a clear signal to health care providers who are — and I can't speak specifically to Nevada — but, when we look at what's driving increases in costs nationwide, it's hospital prices, it’s drug prices and it’s physician costs. So, if the goal is to reduce overall system costs, then I think this bill is taking a noble approach in terms of going where the costs in the system are, which is really on the provider side.
My threshold question is: What's your goal? What are you trying to achieve? Again, if the goal is covering the uninsured, there may be more efficient ways and you can get a bigger bang for your buck with some other approaches.
Opponents of the bill have argued that Nevada should wait and see what impact the American Rescue Plan has on the health care landscape, while proponents argue that those changes are only temporary and the time for Nevada to take action is now. What merit do you see in those arguments?
It is absolutely correct that under the current federal law the federal enhanced subsidies expire at the end of 2022, but President Biden has proposed extending them, and I think there's fairly broad support, at least among Democrats in Congress, for extending them. Certainly nobody should be counting on them being extended, but I think there's a decent chance they will be. If you're a state policymaker, I think you have to think about a future in which these enhanced subsidies are available. Unfortunately, it requires you to have a plan A and plan B, because of the uncertainty, but it would be a mistake not to think about a future in which these subsidies will exist.
Up until this point, you had this weird dichotomy in the market where you have a group of people who are subsidized and insulated from any premium increases, and then a group of folks over 400 percent of the federal poverty line who feel every single dollar of those premium increases. They're totally exposed. The American Rescue Plan puts everybody into the subsidized camp, unless you're undocumented.
I do think it changes the risk-benefit analysis for state policymakers who are trying to think about what to do. I'm not making an argument not to try to address costs in the system. But part of this goes to the counterintuitive way in which the premium tax credits under the ACA work. What happens is the lower your premiums are in a given state, the less dollars you draw down from the federal government in premium tax credits. It's this kind of perverse consequence. You want people to try to reduce costs in the system but, with the premium tax credit, the more you reduce costs, the more you're reducing federal tax dollars coming into your state. From a fiscal perspective, that’s something to think about.
I want to be clear I'm not arguing against doing a public option. I'm not arguing against trying to rein in provider prices. I think those are all very noble things to do. A good chunk of the uninsured in Nevada are eligible for subsidies and are eligible for Medicaid. That’s maybe where you could get the biggest bang for your buck, if the goal is expanding coverage.
That's an argument opponents have been using against the legislation: Because more than half of the uninsured in Nevada are either eligible for Medicaid or subsidies, why is the state not instead focusing on those populations? Is it a both/and or an either/or?
It doesn’t have to be either/or. There’s a lot you can do to try to bring people who are eligible but uninsured into the system by increasing awareness and making it easier to get through systems. That does not preclude also doing a public option to try to lower overall health system costs. I don't know that it's necessarily either/or, you just have to define what your goals are.
Beyond the two groups eligible either for Medicaid or subsidies, there are two other buckets of people who are uninsured: Those for whom affordability or immigration status is a challenge. Thinking about that first bucket: Is reducing premiums costs enough to encourage those folks to purchase coverage?
It's hard to talk about this without thinking about the American Rescue Plan, too. We're seeing with the American Rescue Plan that when you reduce people's premiums — in this case through subsidies — people will sign up. So, if we're talking about a world where there's not these enhanced subsidies and you have a bunch of people who are unsubsidized, would lowering their premium by 15 percent bring some of them in the door? Yeah, I think so. I couldn't tell you how many — that would need to be studied by an actuarial analysis — but yeah, I think it should bring in some. The premium is the first number people look at and why so many of them say, “I just can't afford it.”
Will this bill help Nevada’s undocumented population?
If you’re low income, and you're not eligible for subsidies or for Medicaid, I'm not sure that a 15 percent reduction in the total premium is going to be something that you see as affordable. But I don't want to lump all undocumented immigrants into one category. If you have health issues, where you regularly need to see a doctor or you know you're going to need a surgical procedure — there's lots of reasons why you might purchase insurance, even if you feel like it's too expensive for your household budget — reducing the premiums for unsubsidized insurance could certainly help some of those folks. But if you’re at 100 percent of the poverty line, it's going to be a stretch no matter how much you reduce the premium,
Thinking a little bit about the cost side of things, this bill does have a 15 percent premium reduction goal and sets Medicare rates as the floor for negotiations with providers. The argument that opponents of the bill have been using is that this artificial pressure being created is going to lead to cost-shifting elsewhere in the system. Is there any merit to that argument?
I hear this one a lot. I’m a little bit of a skeptic on the cost-shifting argument. The empirical economic literature out there suggests it's way overblown. But, in general, what the economic analyses have shown is that even where provider prices are newly capped in one context, we're not seeing big jumps in prices in the commercial market. In general, the economic literature does not support that there's going to be widespread or serious cost-shifting. That said, I think it could have an effect. I think that's where you'd want some analysis to be done.
My sense in talking to insurance companies is that for their commercial products, they are typically negotiating with providers and hospital systems across all of their products. If you're talking about a United or Anthem, they're typically going to a major hospital system and they are negotiating prices for all of their commercial products. It's possible that if the state is saying prices have to come down for the public option that Anthem could use that as leverage in its negotiation to bring prices down across the board.
It's really hard to predict how some of those negotiations will play out. I could imagine Anthem saying to a major hospital system, “Look, if you don't want a massive shift of employers dropping their plans and shifting people to the individual market to these lower price plans, then you better work with me.” I can see dynamics where a price cap for the public option plan actually works to keep group commercial prices down. I can also see it going in the other direction. I just don’t know.
Providers haven’t been happy about that provision, which requires them to participate in a public option plan if they also participate in Medicaid, the Public Employees' Benefits Program or workers’ compensation. They argue that the bill will create more instability within an already fragile provider network in Nevada. Are there real considerations to think about there?
I think it's something that could play out very differently in different parts of the state. You may have providers in Reno that really want to participate in the state employee plan because there are a lot of state employees in Reno, but there may be other parts of the state where the hospital sees one state employee every other week and may just tell the public option to pound sand. It's really hard to predict the effects, and I think it is a good idea for the state to be paying attention to those issues now and thinking about what combination of carrots and sticks will get the maximum provider participation and recognizing that there could be big differences across the state.
I wanted to also talk a little bit about the federal waivers the bill leans on. I know 1332 waivers have been used for reinsurance programs, but they haven't been used for a public option before. How do you see that playing out at the federal level?
If the state can show through actuarial studies that it is bringing down the cost of the premiums by 15 percent — as I mentioned, that will lower the amount of premium tax credits coming into the state — and if they get a waiver, the feds will essentially give them what they call the pass-through money. Whatever amount they should have gotten if they hadn't reduced premiums, they will get in this pass-through money.
What's nice about that is it could enable helping create a fund, for example, to help people with deductibles or other things where people have challenges with insurance. It's never been done before, but we have a new federal administration and I think there's a lot of openness to states pursuing these kinds of experiments now, so it's certainly worth a shot.
When Nevada first considered a public option, it was 2017, right after President Trump was inaugurated. There's a new political climate now, and President Biden has even talked about a national public option. How do you see Nevada’s public option fitting in with what’s happening at the federal level?
I doubt there will be a federal public option plan in the short term and, frankly, I think a lot of times the federal government looks to state for not just good health policy ideas but also evidence of what could work on a national level.
I would say that if Nevada wants to pursue a public option, it should move forward and if it works and it works well, it might become a model for a national program. But I think that is a long term thing. Certainly there's a lot of interest here at the federal level in the public option, and I think they would want to encourage states to move forward if they wanted to do so.
Steve Waclo and his wife, Zita, have long loved the Hawaiian islands.
Last February, over the course of four days, they took a train ride around a farm on Kauai, sipped margaritas on Oahu, snorkeled with tropical fish off the coast of Maui and visited lava flows on the Big Island. The island cruise was a much-needed respite from the snowy Carson City winter for the retired couple.
As their ship clipped across the Pacific Ocean to Ensenada, Mexico, the final port of call on their cruise, the captain came in over the intercom: They had received word from the mainland that multiple passengers on the previous leg of the ship’s voyage had fallen ill with COVID-19, which was at the time still in the early stages of spreading across the globe. The ship, the Grand Princess, would be changing course and returning to San Francisco, its port of departure, immediately.
At first, the couple didn’t see any reason for alarm. No cases of the new virus had been identified onboard, and the early return seemed precautionary. The most substantial change was that they had to be served at the buffet. But when they reached the Bay Area, they watched with interest as the Coast Guard airlifted test kits onto one of the top decks of their ship.
Shortly after, all passengers were ordered confined to their cabins, their meals delivered to them on trays at their doors and the news of their fate delivered to them largely by the national media. Information on the boat itself was scarce.
“We didn’t know where we were going to go. We were out in the ocean going around, which was kind of disturbing,” Zita Waclo said. “Nobody told us even when we were going to get off the ship.”
The Waclos found themselves entirely at the mercy of the federal, state and local government officials back on land who were struggling to figure out what should be done with them and their fellow passengers.
As the Grand Princess held 50 miles off the coast of Northern California with 3,533 passengers and crew members, President Donald Trump made his preference known: that the boat stay where it was. At the time, 238 people in the United States had tested positive for the virus; results from the airlifted test kits showed the ship would add 21 more to that total.
“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Two days later, on March 8, state health officials in Nevada finally received the full list of the names and contact information for the 49 Nevadans on the ship. (A 50th, the spouse of another passenger, was later identified.) As the Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland the next day, state officials scrambled to prepare to bring the Nevadans home so they wouldn’t be sent to an out-of-state military base to quarantine. The final decision, though, was up to Gov. Steve Sisolak.
“You have a situation where there’s this new virus. People are really fearful and scared. You have a group of Nevadans who are on this cruise ship. You want to protect the residents back home, so you don't want to bring in potentially infected folks back into your state, but you also are worried about these Nevadans who are now stuck on this ship and then being told they're going to go to an army base and then, potentially, an army base in a state very far away,” Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff, said.
The next day, Sisolak emailed the passengers directly to let them know his decision: They would be coming home. In the email, he acknowledged their frustrations and anxiety over the lack of information they had received and said he felt the same.
“I can assure you that my frustration will be loudly and clearly expressed to leaders in Washington D.C.,” he wrote.
Back on the ship, the Waclos watched from their stateroom balcony as ambulances, buses and trucks lined up at the docks in Oakland. Below them, National Guardsmen readied supplies and rearranged tents. People needing medical attention were carried off the ship. It brought the gravity of the situation into focus.
“Watching the ambulances back up and the stretchers being taken off, we realized this is serious business, people are dying,” Steve Waclo said. “We could potentially die if we do something wrong, if someone slips up.”
When the Waclos were finally told one morning it was their turn to disembark, they had no idea where they were going. It wasn’t until they were on a bus to the Oakland International Airport they were told they wouldn’t be heading straight home to Nevada but rather flown to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in Southern California. Federal officials wanted to test all the passengers for COVID-19 before sending them elsewhere.
At home, state officials felt equally in the dark as the federal government provided them with an ever-changing timetable for when the Nevadans could return.
Local health districts made preparations to receive the passengers once they landed on Nevada soil, including securing the personal protective equipment and vehicles needed to transport them home. A representative of McCarran International Airport voiced concerns about even being able to receive the Southern Nevadans when the time came because of flight restrictions associated with a planned visit by Trump that week. State officials sent out flurries of emails each day informing local officials and airport representatives that the Nevadans were coming, not coming, then coming, and then not coming again.
This went on for four days.
“I completely understand the frustration with the lack of timely detailed information from the feds as I too share in this sentiment,” Malinda Southard, manager of the state’s Public Health Preparedness Program, wrote in an email to Clark County’s fire chief on March 11, a Wednesday. “Best I can do is keep pushing us forward to get our residents home soon and safely.”
In Washoe County, local health officials were eager for their residents to be home. They had gone to the airport three times in anticipation of the passengers’ arrival, only to be called off. Officials just hoped that when the operation was finally a go it wouldn’t be in the middle of the snowstorm expected to roll in that weekend.
Of course, it was.
“I have confirmation we have a dedicated plane out of Miramar tomorrow just for Nevada residents. US HHS confirms there are no more maybe’s probably’s hopefully’s — our people are coming home tomorrow!!” Southard wrote in an email to state health officials on Saturday.
That night, nearly two feet of snow piled up in Incline Village, half a foot in Northwest Reno and an inch elsewhere in town. Ski resorts shuttered as an avalanche warning was issued. Washoe County Health District staffers scouted their neighborhoods the next morning to figure out if the roads were passable; they even had to go buy snow chains first thing that morning for one of the vehicles.
After days of anticipation, the plane touched down in Reno at 12:27 p.m. on March 15. The Northern Nevadans, at least, were home and the Southern Nevadans, who were on the same plane, soon would be, too.
Many of the Washoe County residents needed help getting down the stairs and out of the plane before they were loaded into two vans. One of them, staffed by health district employees Jim English and Wes Rubio, would make stops in Reno before heading over Mt. Rose Summit to Incline Village. English read the directions and checked in on the passengers while Rubio drove.
Both were suited up in white, full-body hazmat suits, full face respirators and gloves as they plowed through the snow with a van full of weary, N95-wearing, COVID-exposed passengers. An unmarked sheriff’s car trailed them to make sure there was no trouble.
At each stop, they battled snow flurries and their respirators iced over in the freezing temperatures. At one point, they swapped their transit van for a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee in a passenger’s Galena cul-de-sac to make it over the summit to Incline through four inches of snow. They had to keep driving. There was nowhere else for the passengers to go.
“We were trying to do as best we could to protect the public and those people that were on that on that bus just to at least get them home,” Rubio said. “It was a massive effort.”
The repatriation of the Grand Princess passengers was not only a massive effort but also the first major challenge in the pandemic where local, state and federal officials were asked to work together to solve a pressing public health problem. They would be asked to overcome many more together in the months to come, from ramping up testing and contact tracing efforts to deploying a mass vaccination campaign.
“That was a big test,” White said. “Then, it only got harder.”
For state and local officials in Nevada, the repatriation effort was largely a success story, a proof of concept that they could work together and communicate effectively to achieve a common goal. Despite their frustrations with the lack of information onboard the Grand Princess and at Miramar, the Waclos praised the state’s response. Once they were home, Carson City Health and Human Services called them every morning during the 14-day quarantine period to check in on them and offered to bring any food and medicine they needed; the governor even called once to see how they were doing.
“I was very impressed by the Washoe County people and the Carson City people,” Zita Waclo said. “They were ready for us, and they really followed up very well.”
The coming months, however, would strain relationships between state and local governments as they struggled to address a daunting public health crisis with few resources and what much of the time felt like little to no support from the federal government.
Sometimes the adversity brought them together as they allied to face a grim future in the face of no centralized national response strategy. The Grand Princess incident, they say, should have been a harbinger of what was to come in the way of federal communication and support during the course of the pandemic. It also showed that state and local governments could work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyday Nevadans.
But the adversity also sometimes wrenched them apart, widening a growing political divide in the state and turning existing cracks in differences in beliefs over the role of state and local governments into deep chasms. Sisolak’s COVID-19 response plan, formed in the absence of a national response framework, caused rural governments long known for rebelling against the federal government to direct their ire instead toward the state. And even when the state and local governments agreed about how to best address the pandemic, underresourced and overworked officials often struggled to effectively communicate with each other, leaving wounds and eroding trust.
There’s a term doctors use to describe what happens to COVID-19 patients when their immune systems go into overdrive: It’s called a cytokine storm. When it happens, the body’s immune system turns against itself and starts to attack healthy tissue and organs.
It’s not unlike the position Nevada has often found itself in over the last year.
There’s an oft-repeated phrase in the emergency response world about how disasters should be managed: They’re supposed to be locally executed, state managed and federally supported.
But, from the get-go, state officials in Nevada say federal support was lacking in the pandemic response. The tone was set at the top, they say, with Trump’s comments downplaying the seriousness of the virus and supporting unproven treatments. This seeped down to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which clashed with the state over more mundane, bureaucratic public health policies, including whether asymptomatic individuals should be tested and which COVID-19 tests were reliable enough to use in nursing homes.
“There was never a time when our decisions, the governor’s decisions, at the state level and our partnership with the local governments was not undermined by the mixed messages or new messages coming out of the federal government,” Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, said.
Cage, the former head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, said the first step in any emergency response is to move past collective denial by getting everyone’s buy-in on the seriousness of the situation. That’s much more easily done with something like the response to a wildfire, where the threat is readily apparent, than it is for a pandemic, where the threat is an invisible pathogen.
That collective buy-in, however, never happened. Instead, Trump painted Democrats’ response to the virus as part two of the January 2020 impeachment trial in an attempt to cost him his re-election; Democrats, meanwhile, were eager to point out all the ways in which they believed Trump was failing to lead on the pandemic.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus — you know that, right? — coronavirus, they’re politicizing it,” Trump said at a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28. “... And this is their new hoax.”
The politicization of the virus, Cage said, created an incentive for people to stay in the denial phase, hindering the federal government’s ability to move to the collective response phase.
From the state’s perspective, it was trying to communicate one thing to the general public and having it constantly contradicted by federal leadership. A week after Nevada made the decision to shut down nonessential businesses on March 17, 2020, the president was still drawing parallels between COVID-19 and the flu. (Scientists believe COVID-19 may be 10 times more deadly than the flu, though the exact mortality rate is still unknown.)
“We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off,” Trump said at a Fox Newsvirtual town hall on March 24. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.’”
The politicization of the virus made it more difficult for the state to get widespread buy-in from everyday Nevadans on the importance of key parts of the state’s pandemic response, too. On one hand, there was Sisolak, the state’s Democratic governor, advocating the importance of mask-wearing; on the other, there was Trump, the Republican president, waffling on the benefits of masks. Even though the scientific evidence only supports one of those two positions, the issue felt — and continues to feel — political to many because of the differences in the way that Republicans and Democrats spoke about masks.
The divide in messaging over public safety measures became, perhaps, the clearest when Trump rallied thousands of supporters in Minden and Henderson in September in defiance of Nevada’s COVID-19 health and safety rules. Dave Fogerson, who at the time managed Douglas County’s pandemic response as deputy fire chief at the East Fork Fire Protection District, said the event put him in a difficult position.
Officials at the county — which is home to more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats — made clear that the event would go on. The local paper, the Record-Courier, summarized the county’s position as this: “Spokeswoman Melissa Blosser said that after careful consideration and weighing the authority of state directives versus First Amendment rights, the county ultimately decided to welcome the sitting President of the United States to our community.”
Privately, though, Fogerson said that people who supported the event were calling to apologize.
“‘Hey, sorry we’re doing this. We want to do this because how often does the president come to town? But we understand what we need to do to keep this going,’” Fogerson recalled them saying. “In the end, the county gave me an award when I left Douglas County for all those efforts — even though we were, it seemed like, on opposite ends of the spectrum — because of trying to do that balance of, ‘Here's where we need to go and here's what you need to do to get there.’”
For state health officials, the pandemic brought a significant shift in the kind of communication they were used to having with their federal counterparts. For one, inconsistent communication from the federal government about what was expected made it difficult for state health officials to do their jobs, Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said.
“They weren’t responding to us as a state in the same way that we were familiar with,” Whitley said. “All of those seemed to be in flux and seemed to be being changed while we were needing, perhaps, that relationship to be at its strongest.”
One example state health officials point to from the beginning of the pandemic was the conflicting guidance they received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about which individuals coming in by plane needed to be quarantined.
In one instance, state health officials struggled to get contact information from the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) for three passengers on a Las Vegas-bound Korean Air flight who had recently been in China. The state only discovered the situation after news outlets reported the flight had been diverted to Los Angeles, one of three airports that was screening for COVID-19 at the time.
State officials said that CDC representatives they spoke with seemed not to be aware of their own agency’s latest travel guidance. Melissa Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, said one federal official even hung up on her.
“It wasn’t clear that everybody within the organization understood that guidance,” Peek-Bullock said. “The inconsistent messages that were coming from CDC to the states made it very difficult and frustrating for us early on.”
The situation prompted Whitley to pen a letter to the CDC expressing his concern.
“I understand this is a rapidly evolving situation; however, I am concerned about the breakdown between the communication the states have received from the CDC, and information provided to the CDC DGMQ,” Whitley wrote in a Feb. 11 letter. “Our state relies on DGMQ to assist in the response to travelers, and the lack of communication in this circumstance created frustration and confusion for all those involved.”
State health officials also saw politics seep into their everyday work. For instance, they were shocked when Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, directly telephoned Nevada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, in early March to request his help in getting Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada and a prominent Trump supporter, tested for COVID-19 after he was possibly exposed at the Conservative Political Action Conference but showing no symptoms. At the time, the CDC’s own guidance restricted testing to symptomatic individuals.
“We do everything possible to treat all people the same, focusing on their risk and not on who they are in terms of importance,” Whitley said. “That’s not a population approach. That’s a privileged approach, and so they set a tone for that.”
State health officials were also wary when the federal government quietly changed the rules to require hospitals to directly report COVID-19 data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead of to both HHS and the CDC, and asked nursing homes to directly report their data to the federal government instead of to the state. Those moves made it challenging for the state to get its hands on valuable COVID-19 data, Whitley said.
“We had to figure out our own ways of collecting the data and identifying where the opportunities for intervention were and where the problems were, with not direct assistance from the federal government,” Whitley said.
The state also directly clashed with the federal government in its policymaking as well. The CDC, for instance, released new guidelines in August that said asymptomatic people should not “necessarily” be tested for COVID-19. The move prompted an immediate backlash from Nevada health officials, who made it clear the state would continue asymptomatic testing.
“When you really have large widespread outbreaks of pandemic, this is the time to test more, not the time to test less,” Azzam said.
Nevada also made the decision in late June to follow in the footsteps of more than a dozen other states and enact a mask requirement in the absence of any federal rule. It wasn’t until late January, a little more than a week after President Joe Biden took office, that the CDC finally issued its first mask order, for travelers only.
“We kept on asking the CDC, ‘Should we start implementing masking for everybody?’ and we were told, ‘No, we don’t really need that,’” Azzam said. “If we don’t know who is spreading the virus, it’s better to mask everyone. You can’t prevent 100 percent transmission, but you can prevent a reasonable amount and reduce infection.”
State health officials’ biggest dust-up with federal health officials, though, came in October. The federal government had directly distributed antigen tests — a type of COVID-19 test helpful in identifying people with COVID-19 but generally less accurate for those who don’t have the virus than the gold-standard PCR tests — to nursing homes, with what state officials described as very little guidance on how to use them appropriately. Nursing homes were also given no guidance on how to report the results of those antigen tests to the state to be counted in its COVID-19 data, state officials said.
As state health officials scrambled to develop that reporting mechanism, they noticed that the antigen tests were coming back with a high percentage of false positives. Among 39 positive antigen tests sent for confirmatory PCR testing, 60 percent came back negative for the virus.
State officials’ immediate concern was that some nursing home residents were incorrectly being identified as positive for COVID-19 and sequestered with true COVID-positive patients, thereby exposing them to a virus they didn’t actually have. So state health officials issued a directive to nursing homes to stop the use of the antigen tests as they looked into the issue further.
In a scathing letter in response to that decision, Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s COVID-19 testing czar, accused state health officials of “a lack of knowledge or bias” and said their decision would “endanger the lives of our most vulnerable.” He added the federal government would “take appropriate steps” if state health officials did not “cease the improper unilateral prohibition” on use of the antigen tests.
“Your Department’s across-the-board ban on POC antigen tests in such settings is based on speculation,” Giroir wrote. “It may cost lives.”
In response to those threats, state health officials rescinded their directive while reiterating their concerns over use of the tests and asked the federal government to reconsider its stance. (One federal official did, however, note in an email to state health officials the CDC does not recommend that nursing homes group asymptomatic patients into a COVID ward based on a single antigen test; rather, those individuals should be considered presumptive positive and isolated with precautions until a confirmatory PCR test is performed.)
What could have been a civil back and forth over a policy difference turned into a heated clash. Peek-Bullock described the federal government’s response to the state’s decision on the antigen tests as “very unusual.”
State officials say that even when they believe the federal government was genuinely trying to help, it often did so in a way that subverted the state’s role in the pandemic response. For instance, when hospitals struggled to secure PPE early on, the federal government provided it directly to hospitals and other health care providers, instead of sending it to the state to then be sent to the counties to then be distributed to hospitals — the usual chain of custody.
“I believe in their minds they were doing it to fight bureaucracy,” Cage said. “But there's a reason this framework is in place, and that's because these private hospitals, public hospitals, aspects of the health care system in the state are asking us for resources, and we don't know how to prioritize the resources if the federal government is going around us.”
But the federal government was critically helpful to the state in one primary area: funding. As of early March, it has provided nearly $25 billion in federal aid to Nevada with $4.1 billion more on the way from the American Rescue Plan. State and local officials say that federal funding — approved by both Republican and Democratic-controlled congressional chambers and signed into law by both Republican and Democratic presidents — was key to their pandemic response efforts.
And, a year since the pandemic began, the federal-state relationship is healing. State officials say they have seen a night and day difference in their relationships with their federal counterparts since Biden took office earlier this year. They report that communication has significantly improved with federal officials — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra met with Sisolak at the Capitol in Carson City this week — and when they have a request, such as federal support to catch up on a vaccination data-entry backlog earlier this year, it’s usually granted.
They say it isn’t because Biden is a Democrat, either.
“The difference in mutual respect, collaboration, willingness to have hard conversations, willingness to work together, willingness to not worry about who gets blamed for what and all of this — that’s just the starting point,” said Cage, who worked previously under two Republican governors and is a lifelong Republican voter. “The previous administration had what I believe will be long remembered as the poorest disaster response in the nation’s history.”
The state’s frustrations with the federal government, however, have a parallel: Local governments’ frustrations with the state.
The root causes of each are strikingly similar. Local governments, charged with executing the finer points of the state’s overall pandemic response, say they often found themselves struggling to play catch-up when the state publicly announced its latest COVID-19 health and safety policy because they had been given little advance warning. They also grappled to keep up with ever-shifting state policies about which establishments could be open, to what extent they could be open and the timetable for those rules. Some think the state struggled to be collaborative in its response as the pandemic drew on, unwilling to cede its decision-making authority even when circumstances may have necessitated different solutions for different parts of the state.
The frustrations date back to the state’s initial decision to close schools and shutter nonessential businesses in mid-March of last year. To some extent, counties understood the hurried nature of the decision: The state was in an emergency situation and was reacting to a constantly developing situation. But they still found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to provide guidance on a local level — to residents and businesses alike — to policies they themselves had just learned about.
“I still remember when we closed everything down and schools were closed, we met in Douglas at 7 o’clock the next morning to, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that yesterday? What are we going to do? How are we going to take care of this?’” said Fogerson, the former deputy fire chief from Douglas County. “Kind of having a panic moment because we were being reactionary.”
Local officials say they often scrambled before each state press conference to figure out what was going to be announced before it was released publicly. In the early days of the pandemic, local officials say they often received no advance information about what policies were going to be announced; they were happy when they started getting even an hour or two’s notice.
“When I was in Douglas, it was ‘What do you mean there is going to be a press conference at 3 o’clock today? Aren’t they going to tell us what it is? Why do we have to watch it on TV?’” Fogerson said. “Whereas now the governor’s office is leaning forward a bit more and getting some information out ahead of time.”
Because local officials had little warning about new state policies, particularly early on in the pandemic, they felt there wasn’t an opportunity for them to voice their concerns and have a consensus-building conversation with the state, which meant some local governments were charged with carrying out policies they didn’t agree with, believe in or understand. The state may not have needed counties’ permission to enact emergency policies under the law, but the state did need local buy-in for those policies to be most effective.
State officials acknowledge the frustrations of their local counterparts. But when they reflect on why they didn’t bring local governments into the fold earlier, they see themselves moving quickly to make choices deep in a crisis response mode that didn’t allow hours for multiple roundtables and scores of phone calls about each policy decision. White, the governor’s chief of staff, said there were dozens of consequential policy decisions the state was making each day.
“It is hard to loop in everyone who feels that they need to be looped in. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be. I'm not saying that their voices don't matter, that they wouldn't have great input,” she said. “But the reality is you have to make those decisions quickly. We have an incredibly small staff that can only make so many phone calls.”
On the flip side, the state’s attempts to centralize certain aspects of the public health response were complicated by the fact that public health in Nevada is historically decentralized. Public health services are provided at the local level in Clark and Washoe counties, as well as Carson City, which together make up more than 90 percent of the state’s population, while the state is responsible for managing public health for the remaining tenth of the population living across 14 rural Nevada counties.
While the localized public health delivery model can be quite effective, in the time of the pandemic it meant the state was often in the position of offering assistance to local health districts for contact tracing or testing, though the decision of whether to accept that help was left to local jurisdictions. That made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a standardized public health response across the state.
“There needs to be a level of statewide response consistency, yes, but there was great latitude and need for them to be completely different locally because they have different resources,” said Julia Peek, a deputy administrator in the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.
As the pandemic drew on, the state made several overtures to local governments to try to create that latitude on the emergency response side as well.
The first came in the form of a so-called Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, which was tasked last spring with assisting counties as they started to reopen businesses after the shutdown. Sisolak, during a late April press conference announcing the new body, said it would be a “disservice” to the state’s residents to pretend its urban and rural counties have the same needs.
When Eureka County Chairman J.J. Goicoechea was asked to join the panel as a representative of the state’s rural counties, he was optimistic. His urban counterpart on the panel was Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, whom he had a longstanding collaborative relationship with and who had recommended him for the job.
But LEAP’s responsibilities ended up being much narrower than Goicoechea initially anticipated, centering primarily around drafting reopening guidelines for approval by the state.
“We thought we were going to have maybe a little more authority and we were going to approve this or approve that or do some things,” Goicoechea said. “It never really materialized.”
Once all businesses — save strip clubs, night clubs, day clubs and brothels — were allowed to reopen, LEAP essentially fell by the wayside. It was frustrating not only for Goicoechea but other local officials who believed the state was finally starting to get things right by delegating more authority to the rurals and bringing more people into the decision-making process.
“LEAP just dissolved, because we were no longer effective. We weren't being talked to,” Goicoechea said. “That’s the unfortunate thing.”
The governor’s office, however, said it was more that LEAP evolved.
“The input and interaction and coordination with a lot of those leaders who were a part of that group, I don’t think, has stopped at all,” White said. “I think things just take on a different form as we’re going through that response.”
In August, Sisolak announced a new pandemic response framework. This one, he said, would also take into consideration counties’ innate differences: Counties would be evaluated based on three criteria to determine whether they are at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 and, if so, they would be required to present a mitigation plan to a new statewide COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force.
The task force, though, ended up doing more management than mitigation. The body spent its first several weeks determining whether bars in seven counties could reopen following a summer surge in cases. As cases began to climb in the fall, counties flagged at elevated risk of transmission spent significant time telling the task force about their plans for community-wide education about the virus and almost no time about any new mitigation measures, such as business closures or limits on gatherings, they planned to put in place.
In fact, in the more than seven months it has existed, the task force has only approved one concrete mitigation measure stricter than the statewide standards. In September, Washoe County proposed keeping its gathering sizes small as the state moved to allow larger events to take place.
“[The task force] made it fairly clear that with the increase in cases that we were seeing in Washoe County that the county needed to do something or the task force was going to do something to them,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said. “That perspective and understanding on the part of local leadership provided some leverage to get them to that commitment.”
Even under the task force model, some counties still felt like they were under the thumb of the state. Scott Lewis, director of emergency management for Nye County, said it sometimes felt like counties were children trying to appease their parents.
“What its intended goal was, as a state, what can we do to best remedy this as a collective team?” Lewis said. “And it was never that. It was always like a parental type of approach, and we had to come up with the magical words to make our parents happy with us.”
Cage, who chairs the task force, acknowledged the body did not work out in practice the way in which he had initially anticipated. Counties, for instance, largely did not bring forward to the task force individual mitigation measures during the fall surge, and the task force didn’t put them forward either; rather, Sisolak enacted a new “statewide pause” that limited occupancy at businesses and again limited gathering sizes homogeneously across all 17 counties.
“The governor always had reserved the right to do so, and that’s where we got in November,” Cage said. “So in a sense it worked as it should. My personal opinion is that the pressure locally was so much that there really wasn’t an appetite locally to put additional measures in place.”
While it may not have been a robust decision-making body, the task force has helped repair some relationships between the state and local governments by providing a regular forum for communication. Some local officials say the task force opened a line of communication to the state.
“From my perspective, and I can only speak for Lyon County, once they developed the task force and put Caleb Cage in charge of it, the majority of my communication complaints went away,” said Jeff Page, Lyon’s county manager. “We were getting good, direct positive feedback from Caleb and the task force as to what they were expecting, what the issues were and what the challenges the state was facing were.”
Dick echoed those sentiments, calling the task force “worthwhile overall.”
“I think that relationship between the health district and Caleb Cage and the members of the task force has really strengthened over time,” Dick said.
Nowhere was the state-local relationship, perhaps, more strained over the course of the pandemic than in rural Nevada, where individual liberty is prized and love of government is scarce.
Initially, as Clark and Washoe counties were hit hard by the virus, rural counties were optimistic that they might be able to avoid the virus altogether. While urban America grappled with SARS scares in the early 2000s, rural America was largely untouched by the virus. Rural counties hoped their isolation and low population density would come in handy this time, too.
It quickly became clear that would not be the case as tiny Humboldt County, with a population of a little less than 17,000, became Nevada’s hardest-hit county, the result of a large family gathering that had exposed many individuals to the virus. As the virus began to spread across rural Nevada, public health experts and rural officials became increasingly concerned about the effect COVID-19 could have on those communities, owing to the fact that rural counties generally have older populations than urban ones and the dearth of medical care in rural counties.
For some rural health officials, the importance of community buy-in about mitigation measures quickly became evident. Rural Nevadans might not take kindly to rules being handed down to them from the federal or state governments, but they could be appealed to on an individual level to take steps to protect themselves and their community.
The rest of the country was grappling with how to balance individual liberty with the need for collective action too, but that tension was acute in the rural West.
“One of the things that makes our country special is all the choices that we have. To me, that is a very sacred thing. It is, I think, to all of us,” Dr. Charles Stringham, Humboldt County’s health officer, said. “But, as a result, when you fight the virus in the United States, your best weapon is information and also trying to encourage people by being compelling, because at no point did we ever have interest in encouraging people by regulating or legislating. We’ve just never really wanted to do that here in Humboldt County.”
Stringham’s approach was particularly introspective: If the residents of Humboldt County weren’t listening to him, he figured his message needed to be more compelling. He started a series of “Ask Me Anything About COVID-19” Zoom sessions to answer community members’ questions about vaccination, viral transmission and the efficacy of mask wearing, among others, in a commonsense, plainspoken way.
“My hope was that if people really did think that masks were ridiculous and that they didn’t work, and if people really did think that six feet seemed arbitrary, and that if people really did think that mutations in the virus would negate the effect of vaccinations, that they could call in and ask those questions and get real answers,” Stringham said.
During one of those Zoom calls in December, Stringham was asked why he and other members of the medical community were so focused on social distancing and mask wearing instead of advocating the benefits of, among other things, the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Stringham was calm and deliberate in his answer, saying he wished the drug would have worked to treat COVID-19 but that scientific studies didn’t bear that out.
“There's always an assumption that if allopathic physicians don't do something, that it's because we're holstering that or we're sequestering it, we're not bringing that to bear,” Stringham told the man. “But the bottom line is that in allopathic medicine, we have to be able to prove that something has an effect.”
Another asked why the media makes such a big deal about COVID-19 deaths and not flu deaths. Stringham explained that 34,000 people in the U.S. died of the flu during the last flu season; at the time, 300,000 had died of COVID-19. He also noted that people who contract COVID-19 can go on to develop long-term health conditions that impair their quality of life.
“I can't even really talk about this without getting a little bit choked up,” Stringham said. “This is not the flu. It is not the flu. I wish it were, but it isn't.”
Other rural communities took a similar approach. In Ely, Mayor Nathan Robertson went on the local radio station every day to answer people’s questions about the virus, from technical inquiries about which businesses were allowed to be open and what assistance was available to broader questions about whether martial law had been declared and whether the National Guard would prevent people from getting to their doctor’s appointments in Salt Lake City.
“There was a real vacuum of just credible answers,” Robertson said.
As the state created new COVID-19 health and safety rules, the focus for some rural leaders was how to help their businesses comply. Robertson said Ely’s focus was on assisting businesses at the local level to avoid the state sending out compliance officers.
“Everybody was just kind of in an attitude of cooperation: ‘Hey, how can we help? Our goal is to make sure your business stays open,’” Robertson said. “We can’t afford to lose a single restaurant in our community. We can’t afford to lose any of our businesses. We’re so isolated.”
In Lyon County, Dr. Robin Titus, the county’s health officer and the Republican Assembly leader, advised local ranchers about how to group guest workers into pods so that if someone tested positive for COVID-19, they would know exactly who was exposed.
“They were paying attention. They were calling me,” Titus said. “They wanted to make sure things were safe.”
And though rural Nevada has earned a reputation for opposing the state’s COVID-19 health and safety rules, several rural officials say they believe their residents took the virus seriously when it counted. Titus said she has a 95-year-old patient who was very cautious about the virus and stayed home. Goicoechea, who is also Eureka County’s health officer, said his residents were “really good” at isolating and quarantining when they tested positive or someone in their household came down with the virus.
“They may be chipping their teeth on Main Street saying, ‘This is all fake. This is a hoax. I don’t believe in it,’” Goicoechea said. “But when we called them up and said, ‘You’re positive, I need you to shut ‘er down. You gotta stay home. Let us know what we can do,’ they went home and they stayed home and they cooperated.”
Of course, compliance wasn’t universal. Robertson acknowledged there were some instances in Ely where people called the sheriff alleging a business was discriminating against them because they weren’t wearing a mask. Law enforcement would inform them that businesses could put in place whatever rules they wanted and could kick them out for not following them.
“They were like, ‘Well, what do you mean? They didn’t let me in.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is a private business. They don’t have to,’” Robertson said.
Multiple rural officials also noted that there was always going to be some degree of pushback from their residents about the state’s rules simply because of the high price they place on individual freedoms. But they also believe that philosophy shouldn’t stop people from doing the right thing for their neighbors.
“You don’t have to choose either safety or freedom,” Stringham said. “You can absolutely have both, and that was the message that I was trying to deliver.”
But, because of the communication role they took on, some rural officials found themselves in the difficult position of trying to be the bridge between the state and their residents. They didn’t have great answers when their residents asked why the state had allowed casinos to open to 50 percent but churches were required to be limited to 50 people. They didn’t have great answers when residents asked why their kids couldn’t go to school but daycare centers were open. They didn’t have great answers for why casino restaurants remained closed while eateries across the street could open.
“That would be frustrating, because you would be getting calls from these businesses going, ‘Hey, my neighbor across the street, who’s got a restaurant, their restaurant is open. Why can’t mine be open?’” Robertson said. “There would be a lot of calls like that.”
They also didn’t have good answers for their residents about why certain statewide policies should be applied to them when they were experiencing a low level of case growth in their communities or could pinpoint where the case growth was coming from. In White Pine, most cases were traced back to specific gatherings, including a Halloween party and a softball game, Robertson said.
“When the sheriff’s office gets something from the county health officer and that says, ‘Hey, so-and-so tested positive,’ he knows exactly where that person is most of the time. He knows who they hang out with,” Robertson said. “He can say, ‘Well this is how you get ahold of so-and-so and here’s how we do this,’ and bing-bada-boom, it’s done.”
Rural officials who have tried to actively aid the pandemic response by getting their communities to follow the state’s health and safety protocols have often found themselves in the community’s crosshairs as a result.
“There’s some lifelong friends of mine who are very, very upset. I mean, they’re to the point where they don’t want to talk to me because they think I quote-unquote ‘drank the Kool Aid,’ if you will,” Goicoechea said. “But everything I’ve done is to protect people and to protect the economy. I’m not taking unnecessary risks but, at the same time, I’m willing to take some calculated risks because I know where the disease is spreading in my community.”
It didn’t help that the pandemic became a political issue, either. If conservative rural Nevada was already wary of government officials telling them what to do, they were particularly wary of a Democratic governor from Clark County telling them what to do — particularly when that message contradicted the one coming from their local officials and a Republican president most of them supported.
Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said that though local officials have become more supportive of pandemic response efforts “because they see the light at the end of the tunnel,” it used to be “horrific” to come before the county commission at each of its meetings to give a COVID-19 update when many didn’t believe in the severity of the virus.
“The political side of it was probably one of the worst things to deal with when we’re trying to make sure we meet the state’s requirements, we meet the state mandates and yet our local governments were telling us just the opposite,” he said. “They wanted nothing to do with it. They didn’t want to hear the reports. They didn't believe in the masks. They didn’t believe in the numbers and what the numbers meant. The deaths were made up, and it was a huge conspiracy, and that was extremely disheartening.”
In fact, the political discord was so severe that several rural county commissions, starting with White Pine County, passed a series of similar resolutions opposing Sisolak’s emergency directives. Robertson, who leads the only incorporated city in White Pine, framed those measures as chest-thumping by a small contingent of politically motivated individuals.
“I mean, honestly, I think I got more support for just being level-headed and cool and attending to the issues than I would have by screaming and thumping my chest and sending nastygrams to Carson City,” Robertson said.
Goicoechea, who said that he was responsible for drafting 99 percent of the version of the resolution Eureka County passed in January, acknowledged the measure was a statement. But he said it’s also one that his constituents needed to hear.
“People needed to see it in writing,” Goicoechea. “I’m not going to make a demand, knowing that he has the authority granted in the Constitution of the state of Nevada and he was exhibiting that under his emergency powers. But I did want him to hear we want things to be done differently. We expect them to be done differently.”
Looking back, rural officials wish there had been more communication with the state early on.
“We’re the ones down on the frontlines trying to implement what you’re drawing down from the top,” Robertson said. “If you want to know how it’s going, if you want some help on ‘hey, how could this go better?’ talk to your mayors, talk to these people, talk to these county commissioners, and there could’ve been more of that.”
Now, the relationship between the state and rural Nevada may, in some ways, be worse than it has ever been. Rural officials believe there is a healing process that needs to happen.
“It’s too far into it. We’re 12 months in. If it had been six months: ‘Okay guys, let’s get back to work,’” Goicoechea said. “But now we’re 12 months in and I feel that maybe some folks are really starting to entrench: ‘Hey, you guys aren’t working for us and when you do come back, you think you’re just going to come out here and start dictating how we’re going to do this stuff?’ I’m very fearful that the relationship we’re having with the state agencies, there’s going to be a long time trying to build that back.”
Beyond the rural context, the relationships between the state and local governments have continued to have their hiccups.
In response to the state’s decision to expand gathering sizes in September, health district officials in Clark and Washoe counties sent a strongly worded letter to the state, saying that it was “inappropriate” for local health authorities to not be consulted in the state’s public health decision-making process.
More than six months after the state’s first emergency directive, local health districts found out about the decision at the same time as the public.
“Our phones would just light up here. All of those businesses were calling us to find out what was going on, how they were affected, what they needed to do. We didn’t have any more information than they did,” Dick, Washoe County's health officer, said. “That was quite frustrating.”
While they were given slightly more notice before the state put in place its statewide pause this fall, concerns over communication remain. The state’s overtures to local governments — in the form of LEAP, or the task force — while positive have often felt like just that: overtures.
“I think there could be better communications, and more regular communications,” Dick said. “There have been opportunities for those dialogues and discussions but they haven’t been continued. There’s been some activity and initiative to make sure those communications happen and then they sort of go away.”
Counties say they still sometimes have to play catch up when it comes to the state’s policies. Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said everyone had just gotten on board with the state’s tiered vaccination structure — though some believed it didn’t make the most sense for Nye — when the state announced that it was moving to a new, lane-based approach.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lewis recalled thinking at the time. “Here we are toeing the line and the line came back and snapped us right in the butt.”
Even now, a year after the pandemic began, Lewis isn’t sure what exactly his role is supposed to be. With the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is supposed to be managed at the local level, he still feels like he doesn’t have the flexibility he needs to make decisions at the county level.
“Every time we made a decision it was, ‘You can’t do that, you have to do what we tell you or what we’re giving you,’” Lewis said. “I’m like, ‘Well, no, no, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say I’m responsible for the decision and then take the ability away from me.’”
In Clark County, Sisolak and Kirkpatrick, the commission chair, have butted heads at points over the course of the pandemic, including after Kirkpatrick publicly pushed for the state to reopen businesses more quickly after the winter surge and Sisolak targeted Clark County for inequalities in the vaccine distribution process. For her part, though, Kirkpatrick says communication with the state has improved.
“Some days are harder than others, because we try to understand what’s behind the reasoning,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I will tell you there are a lot more meetings, a lot more conversations.”
And then there’s Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who during a CNN interview last year suggested the city serve as a “control group” to determine the benefits of social-distancing measures and recently said the governor’s prolonged emergency power “smacks of tyranny,” indicating that Sisolak had been unwilling to hear her input.
Sisolak, in an interview earlier this month, acknowledged his communication with local governments could have been better. But he also noted that there are hundreds of local government officials around the state and said it’s just not possible to communicate with all of them.
“Some of them were saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t you do this?’ or ‘Why don’t you do that?’ There’s 17 counties I’ve got to deal with, not just one,” Sisolak said. “They all want some attention, they all deserve some attention, and we can always do better.”
And, alluding to Goodman’s earlier comments, Sisolak said that he refused “to let the citizens, the residents of Nevada be used as test subjects or guinea pigs.” Whatever criticism he has received for his decisions during the pandemic — whether for being too strict or too lenient in the state’s rules — he bears.
“The buck has to stop with somebody and it stopped with me,” Sisolak said.
Still, multiple local officials said they give the state credit for the way it supported their pandemic response at the county level. Jeanne Freeman, public health preparedness program manager for Carson City Health and Human Services, said that trust between her agency and the state is deeper than it was before.
“They have their perspective and what they see, but then they have inquired, they have listened to us when we’ve said, ‘We see what you’re saying about that, but we’re not sure that’s really going to be how it’s going to work when we get it down to the local level,’” Freeman said. “We’ve met them in the middle. They have given a lot.”
Lewis said there were some state officials with "really spectacular personalities" that "shined" during the pandemic who understood the difficult situation local officials were in.
"I understand there's both sides of that because they're obviously overworked," Lewis said. "There was that lack of compassion and empathy both ways."
And some local officials, despite their complaints, give Sisolak and the state credit for the difficult position they were in.
“Part of my respect for the governor is those tough decisions that he's made to protect the state of Nevada,” Dick said. “I really commend the governor and his courage for the decisions that he's made. But I haven't seen that type of leadership, for the most part, coming at the local level.”
If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of relationships — and highlighted how difficult it is to build them in the middle of a crisis situation if they weren’t already there.
“Theoretically we could’ve done listening tours and town halls and developed those relationships as much as we could,” Cage said. “But the resources and the time constraints were so extreme and really remain so extreme right now as we transition to the vaccination effort that there really just was not the mechanism, the capacity to do that.”
Fogerson, who was appointed the head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management this fall, says the value of relationships is something he tries to keep in mind as a local-turned-state official.
“At the state, your job is not to do. Your job is to support and enable the local providers,” Fogerson said. “I used to get very mad at state employees that would come down and tell me how to do something or, ‘Here, we’re going to do that for you.’ … It’s going back to that civics lesson of who really needs to be the sharp end of the stick and how do we help them to sharpen that stick better?”
For some in local government, it finally feels like things are looking up.
In February, Sisolak announced the state would be transitioning the responsibility for COVID-19 health and safety mitigation measures to the counties by May 1. Mask and social distance requirements will remain in place statewide, but it will soon be up to counties to figure out how many people can be inside a business and how large gatherings are allowed to be.
Several counties, at multiple meetings of the COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force last week, voiced their intent to open businesses 100 percent as soon as they can. Most businesses across the state are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.
“We can do it safely. We have the plan. We’re ready. We’re looking forward to it,” Goicoechea, the Eureka County Commission chair, said. “We will be ready to go and open up safely in a big way as soon as he lets us.”
For the next couple of weeks, county staff will be working on their plans for the transition to local control and getting them approved by their county commissions. Those plans will then be presented to the task force sometime in mid-April.
“That’s one of the smart things about what the governor is doing is put that decision-making process back in the hands of the people in the state of Nevada to use the sense that they have to take care of themselves and their families, and businesses to take care of their business and their customers,” Page, Lyon’s county manager, said.
Local governments now find themselves grappling with the kinds of questions the state has been facing all along, including how to enforce any mitigation measures.
Once the transition to local control happens, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will continue to enforce statewide policies but doesn’t have the authority to enforce local policies. That will be left to local code enforcement officers, who may not have the bandwidth to routinely surveil stores, and sheriffs, who, as elected officials worried about their reelection bids, may not be interested in enforcing the measures.
Counties are also pondering what happens if cases once again start to rise: Will the state step back in, or will it be up to them to put in place mitigation measures on their own?
“Go ahead and kick it out to local government control, see a spike in the summer, and then issue some kind of an emergency directive that we’re going to pull back some of these openings, you will have a complete uprising,” Goicoechea said. “That is my biggest fear.”
While Sisolak said the state would remain “flexible” and continue to monitor trends on a county level during the transition to local control, the goal of the new plan is for counties to take the reins and the state to step back. Still, Sisolak will retain the legal authority to issue new statewide emergency directives unless the Legislature takes action to limit the governor’s power.
Republican lawmakers have put forward legislation this session that would do just that, though those proposals have not yet been given hearings by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.
“There’s three branches of government for a reason and this extended emergency stuff really needs to be defined on what the governor’s role should be, and that’s the thing: There’s really no definition of it and that’s the problem,” said Titus, the Republican Assembly leader. “We're trying to put some bills forward to define it, but so far we haven’t gotten any traction with that.”
Counties, however, are finding that taking the reins from the state is easier said than done.
“I want people to open their businesses up to 100 percent capacity, but my fear is if that happens and then we get wave three of COVID and it’s more severe than wave one or two, do we go back to what we’ve been doing? That’s a concern,” Page said. “I’ve said this publicly: I thank God I’m not the governor. I can’t imagine making those types of decisions and impacting people’s lives.”
A year into the pandemic, Titus, who is also a family practice doctor in Lyon County, is of the mind that people are well-informed enough to be able to make choices about what behavior is safe or unsafe. She says it’s the kind of conversation she often has with her patients when discussing treatment options.
“Once a person has all the information, and I give them the information that I have, they have the right to refuse treatment. They have a right to self-determination, even if I didn’t agree with their decision, even if I thought they made a bad choice,” Titus said. “Once we’ve educated everybody as the government, once we give them good informed consent, they have the right to choose not to do that.”
There are, however, limits to that idea.
“You have the right to self-determination as long as it doesn’t impact those around you,” Titus said. “You have the right to get COVID if you want to. You have a right to make a bad choice and get sick, but if your choice then impacts the entire roomful of people that you’ve now exposed, I’m sorry, we have the right to remove you from that room.”
From top state officials down to everyday Nevadans, many are of the belief that the biggest challenge of the pandemic wasn’t the virus itself, but the lack of communication — and, by extension, the relationships, community and trust that come along with that — to respond to it.
Without communication, state and federal governments can’t cooperate, state and local governments can’t work together and governments at any level can’t effectively convey important, potentially life-saving, information to their citizens.
“Communication, it’s always going to be something we have to strive for in government to do a better job of,” Page said. “It’s always going to be our biggest failing.”
The bill is the fulfilment of a promise that Frierson made earlier in the session to make the state’s pandemic-induced change to mail balloting in the 2020 election permanent, but is also likely to draw staunch opposition from Republican lawmakers who have denounced the expansion of mail voting and have introduced many of their own election-related proposals.
But the bill does more than just make expanded mail voting permanent. It also would shorten the deadline for fixing issues with signatures on mail ballots and for how late a mail ballot could be counted after election day.
It also would explicitly authorize election clerks to use electronic devices in signature verification, require more training on signature verification and adopt a handful of other provisions aimed at beefing up election security measures.
To be clear, many details in the bill could change (the measure hasn’t even been scheduled for a hearing as of Friday). But it’s already attracted some tentative support from an important ally — Gov. Steve Sisolak.
“The Governor has been supportive of efforts to expand voting access and opportunities for eligible Nevadans, and based on how Nevadans embraced voting by mail in record numbers this past fall, he believes it makes sense to consider making this a permanent option while also ensuring continued opportunities to vote in person,” Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said in an email, while noting that the governor will continue to “review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him.”
Here’s how AB321 would change future elections in Nevada:
Enshrining expanded mail-in voting while changing deadlines
In a technical sense, AB321 fulfills the Republican legislative goal of repealing AB4 from the 2020 special session — the bill that expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic or other declared state of emergencies.
The bill repeals large sections of election law related to mail and absentee ballots (including AB4) — but re-enacts many of the same provisions in a more streamlined way.
As with AB4, the bill would require all county and city clerks to send every active registered voter 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 (inactive voters were sent a mail ballot in the 2020 primary election, but a failure to update Clark County voter lists in time before the general election led to many of them being sent general election ballots).
The bill would allow voters to opt-out of being mailed a ballot, by providing written notice to their local or county election clerk.
But AB321 also changes some of the deadlines that were in place for the 2020 election.
AB4 allowed election officials to accept mail ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received within seven days after election day. If passed, AB321 would shorten that deadline from seven days after the election to four days.
It also would reduce the amount of time in which voters can fix issues with their signature on a mail ballot — a process called “signature cure.” The provisions of AB4 gave voters a 7-day window after Election Day to “cure” a signature issue or error; AB321 would shorten that to six days after the election.
Another shortened deadline is how long election officials would have to process mail ballots. As in AB4, election officials could still start processing received mail ballots up to 15 days before an election (totals would still be kept secret), but they would have to process all mail ballots by the 7th day after an election. AB4 allowed election boards to take up to nine days after an election to finish processing mail ballots.
The measure also would allow Indian reservations or colonies more time to request the establishment of a polling place within the boundaries of the reservation or colony. For primary elections, the deadline to request a polling place would be moved up from the first Friday in January to April 1, and from the first Friday in July to Sept. 1 for general elections.
The legislation maintains other contentious items in AB4, including legalized ballot collection (derided as “ballot harvesting” by opponents). Under those provisions, a voter can authorize another person to deliver their mail ballot to either a drop box or an election clerk’s office on their behalf, with substantial (felony) penalties if a person does not turn the ballot in before the election or otherwise fails to return the ballot.
Signature verification and other security measures
Beyond those changes, the bill also would implement explicit directions on machine signature verification and other security related provisions that were contested in court filings prior to the 2020 election.
For one, it grants explicit permission for election clerks to check signatures electronically — a point that the Trump campaign challenged in an ultimately unsuccessful federal lawsuit filed shortly after AB4 was approved, and shortly after election day in 2020.
If a county election clerk opts to use an electronic device for signature verification, AB321 requires a test of the accuracy of the machine before the election, and also requires it to be set to the same “standard for determining the validity of a signature” as a manual review by an elections worker.
Clerks also would be required to conduct daily audits of each signature-checking device during the processing of mail ballots, which would include a review and sample of at least 1 percent of verified signatures each day. County clerks would also be required to prepare a report on each daily audit, and would require the review of signatures to be overseen by an election board whose members “must not all be of the same political party.”
Regardless of whether a county uses an electronic machine or staff to check signatures, AB321 would require that each county election clerk and any members of their staff who help administer elections complete a training class on forensic signature verification. The class has to be approved by the secretary of state’s office.
In a previous interview, Frierson discounted any notion that widespread fraud occurred in the 2020 election, but said he wanted to still take into consideration that a considerable number of voters had some doubts about the election administration process in 2020.
“Regardless of whether or not I believe that the basis for those concerns is legitimate or reliable, I do believe that we need to hear them out and make sure that we have an inclusive vetting process, and that we care about safe and secure elections,” he said in a February interview.
The bill retains the standard for signature verification present in AB4 — at least two election employees must have a “reasonable question of fact” as to whether the signature on the mail ballot matches the one on file, with “multiple, significant and obvious” differences between the signatures.
Another change is that the bill would require the secretary of state’s office to enter into an agreement with the State Registrar of Vital Statistics to cross check the list of registered voters in the state with a list of deceased individuals. The bill would require a comparison of records to be conducted at least monthly.
Though primarily focused on mail voting, the proposed legislation would also make a change for those who continue to vote in person. Under current law, if a registered voter shows up to a polling place and has a signature that doesn’t match the one on file, the election worker is allowed to ask for personal data or other forms of identification that verify their identity. The bill would exclude a person’s date of birth from that “personal data” that an election worker can ask about.
And while not directly related to election security, the bill also would add county or city clerks, or any of their deputies, to the list of occupations and positions which are allowed to request their personal records be kept confidential.
The vast majority of election complaint case files submitted to top Nevada election officials in the last six months regarding the 2020 election were closed without any findings that election laws were violated, even as many Republicans continue to assert that the election was rife with fraud and stolen from former President Donald Trump.
A log obtained by The Nevada Independent through a public records request shows there were 298 election integrity case files submitted to the secretary of state’s office from the beginning of September through Tuesday. It does not characterize the complexity of any individual case — such as whether a complainant suggested a single improper vote or submitted a spreadsheet alleging thousands of suspicious votes — or offer names of complainants or the accused.
Of those case files, 255 — or 86 percent — have been closed either because no violation was found, the underlying issue was resolved, or the case was referred to investigatory authority in the secretary of state’s office.
Only 41 of the roughly 300 files submitted for the 2020 election have not been resolved, which includes 15 submitted by the Nevada Republican Party earlier this month (many entries in the log list out several thousand alleged examples of voter fraud). The GOP and the state had widely varied public descriptions of the scope of their submission, with the party saying it submitted 122,918 records, and the state categorizing it as fewer than 4,000 distinct reports.
The log shows basic information about Election Integrity Violation Reports received by the office, which is the public-facing complaint form that individuals can submit to the secretary of state’s office identifying alleged instances of fraud or violations of election law.
A single report can contain multiple examples of alleged “fraud” or issues, which likely explains the variance between the number of reports that the state and Republican Party say were submitted.
The document gives a fuller view of the work that Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office has done to investigate largely unsupported allegations of voter fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election — a line that Trump and prominent state and national Republican Party officials have repeated since the election was called for President Joe Biden.
The secretary of state’s office has maintained for months that it has not seen any evidence of widespread voter fraud that could meaningfully affect Trump’s 33,596-vote loss to Biden in the state, but says it is still investigating several “isolated” cases of potential fraud.
Among the findings in the log:
Seven of the submitted complaints were listed as “Referred to Securities” or “Currently with Securities” — meaning they had been referred out for potential action by law enforcement. Four of the complaints dealt with “campaign practices,” two dealt with “voter fraud” and one dealt with “misconduct.”
About 75 of the complaints are labeled as “data base concerns (voter history)” and all but one originated in the month of November. At that time, the secretary of state’s office was trying to clarify to the public why an online system might not have reflected that a person’s vote had been counted; the system was not updated until the election was certified, even if the ballot was already counted.
Two complaints of “ballot sent to deceased person” are shown as closed with no violation.
35 complaints, filed at various points throughout the campaign season, deal with “campaign practices;” 27 of those are listed as resolved with no violation.
52 of the resolved complaints are categorized as “voter fraud” with no further information listed.
About a dozen complaints listed polling place concerns or irregularities, including two about poll worker attire.
In a press release issued Tuesday, the secretary of state’s office said it had inventoried, labeled and evaluated all election-related complaints submitted by the state Republican Party after a rally-style event two weeks ago. The office said the assessment revealed far fewer Election Integrity Violation Reports than the party advertised in a press release, all of which were filed by the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, Michael McDonald, with several “already under investigation by law enforcement.”
A letter the secretary of state’s office sent to the Nevada GOP as a “receipt” on Tuesday, and that was obtained through a public records request, indicates the GOP had delivered in four boxes, a USB drive with 23 documents and spreadsheets, three business cards and 3,963 elections integrity violation reports.
“We take every complaint seriously and will conduct a thorough and detailed examination of the information provided,” the letter said.
It also indicated that eight of the documents on the USB drive were sworn affidavits that had been redacted, and the secretary of state’s office requested unredacted versions as soon as possible.
Details in the election violation report log and the response letter indicate that several of the affidavits appear to be copies of material or reports that the Trump campaign submitted to a state court as part of an election challenge seeking to have presidential results in the state overturned. All of the cases failed in court, though the party has released some of the affidavits or evidence originally filed under seal on its website.
In a response to Cegavske that was published Tuesday, the Nevada Republican Party said the secretary of state’s Tuesday statement is “validating our assertion that there is voter fraud in the 2020 election” and planned to follow up with emailed copies of “each and every complaint.”
“We need better transparency from our elected officials investigating these matters, especially with so many Nevadans questioning the integrity of our voting process,” the party said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “We hope that Secretary Cegavske finally demonstrates a commitment to the concept that no amount of voter fraud is acceptable in the great State of Nevada.”