Automatic voter registration system adds thousands of new voters, despite security concerns from critics

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

More than 140,000 people registered as new voters through Nevada’s automatic voter registration (AVR) system since it took effect in January last year, according to a new report.

After a majority of Nevada voters approved the system in 2018, AVR took effect in 2020, allowing individuals who complete certain DMV transactions such as driver’s license renewals to register to vote or have registration information updated unless they manually opt out.

The report, which was submitted to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee by the secretary of state’s office, combined with data from the secretary of state’s office showed that AVR created 142,484 new Nevada voters last year. Those new registrations, along with updates to approximately 300,000 existing voter registrations, came by way of more than 580,000 DMV transactions that offered a voter registration opportunity.

The registration opportunities also resulted in 143,279 applicants selecting to opt out of the AVR system, and more than 50,000 applicants selecting a party affiliation.

The new voters registered by AVR last year represent 7.1 percent of the approximately two million voters registered in the state. Nevada is at record levels of voter registration, as there were approximately 250,000 more active voters in December 2020 than in December 2019, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Besides the new AVR system, the introduction of same-day voter registration and interest in the presidential election last year helped boost the state’s registration numbers.

Critics, including Republican former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, have raised concerns that there are not enough back-end checks on the voter registration list to ensure non-citizens are not being registered through AVR.

Laxalt’s lawsuit against fellow Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske alleged that her office has failed to keep noncitizens from registering to vote in state elections because it “has not adopted systematic or routine checks of the citizenship of those on Nevada’s statewide voter registration list.” Laxalt’s case, filed in Carson City District Court, is pending.

Despite Laxalt’s claims, Nevada DMV spokesperson Kevin Malone has previously said there are safeguards in place to protect against the registration of ineligible voters.

The AVR system works by providing eligible voters with an “AVR Options” form after filling out their application for driving privileges, license renewal, or change of address. The form provides applicants with the option to opt-out of the voter registration process.

Applicants who are ineligible for AVR, such as those who will be under the age of 18 by the time of the next election or those who submit a permanent resident card for documentation, are sent a Notice of Ineligibility. 

The DMV application also includes a question about whether the applicant is a citizen, and holders of Driver Authorization Cards, which are commonly used by non-citizens, are excluded from the AVR process. 

As the process continues to create large numbers of new voters, AVR could receive attention in the upcoming legislative session. Several lawmakers, including Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) and Senator Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), have requested bills addressing election security concerns, including proposals to enact voter ID laws. 

Secretary of State: No evidence of 'wide-spread fraud' in Nevada’s 2020 election

Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office announced Friday evening that it has “yet to see any evidence of wide-spread fraud” in the state’s 2020 election, an indirect rebuke of unsupported claims of mass voter fraud made by President Donald Trump and Nevada Republicans.

In a “Facts vs. Myths” document posted to the secretary of state’s website late Friday, Cegavske’s office wrote that it is pursuing several “isolated” cases of voter fraud, but has not seen evidence of any large-scale fraud that would meaningfully affect Trump’s 33,596-vote loss in the state. Electors cast Nevada’s six electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden on Monday.

Publication of the document comes two days after President Trump tweeted that “Nevada must be flipped” based on testimony presented by a Trump campaign attorney, Jesse Binnall, during a U.S. Senate hearing on election security on Wednesday. A Binnall-led lawsuit by the Trump campaign to grant the president the six electors tied to Biden, or withdraw Nevada entirely from Electoral College proceedings, failed in early December.

The purported evidence presented about the alleged fraud in Nevada’s 2020 election has been roundly rejected by courts in the state, including by a District Court judge as offering “little to no value” and failing to establish that any illegal votes were cast in the election. Judge James Russell’s order called into question data analyses provided by the Trump campaign, saying their methodology was questionable or that witnesses were unable to verify data or identify its origins.

Russell also said much of the evidence relied on out-of-court declarations of witnesses, which did not allow for cross-examination and thus was below the standard allowed for election contest proceedings. 

The document bats down a long list of other aspersions cast upon the Nevada election, including that the secretary of state is ignoring evidence of wrongdoing. Her office says election integrity violation reports and accusations with legitimate evidence are investigated, but not “unfounded accusations” or “anonymous declarations.”

It also covers complaints raised about changes in the state’s election process that were approved by the Legislature, including allegations that the secretary of state decided to mail ballots to all active registered voters in Nevada and didn’t oppose “ballot harvesting” — the practice of collecting and turning in absentee ballots for multiple voters. Lawmakers were the ones to approve those changes, in spite of Cegavske’s opposition to provisions allowing for low-restriction “ballot collection.”

“The Secretary of State has a sworn duty to uphold the election laws of Nevada as enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor,” the document says.

It also addresses additional unfounded claims by Trump — who yesterday tweeted that “many thousands of noncitizens voted in Nevada” — in stating that the office has not been presented with any evidence of non-citizens voting in the 2020 election as of Friday.

That claim originates from a declaration submitted by the Trump campaign as part of an ultimately unsuccessful election contest lawsuit, which claimed it had evidence that 3,987 noncitizens voted in the 2020 election through comparing of voter rolls with subpoenaed documents from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles of individuals with driver authorization cards, which are offered to noncitizens as a way to legally drive on state roads.

A DMV spokesman said in an email on Thursday evening that it provided the Trump campaign with a list of the names and addresses of individuals who over the last five years had obtained a driver authorization card or driver’s license using immigration paperwork, such as a permanent resident card, U.S. Visa or other immigration related documents. But the office said that the list was not definitive proof of citizenship or noncitizenship, as individuals could obtain citizenship and legally vote after obtaining a driver authorization card.

“The mere fact that a person presented such a document when applying at the DMV is not conclusive proof of their citizenship status,” DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said in an email. “These residents may well have gained citizenship but have not updated their driver’s license or ID.”

Michael Kagan, Director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said that the categories of immigration documents requested by the Trump campaign were documents that could have been used by individuals eligible to become U.S. citizens.

“Immigration status and citizenship change during people's lives, and driver's licenses last many years,” he said in a message. “Someone might have been a non-citizen three years ago when they got their driver's license, and they then got citizenship, voted legally, and haven't renewed their license with a new document yet.”

New same-day and automatic voter registration laws helped drive record participation in Nevada election

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

In October, the secretary of state reported there were more than 1.8 million active registered voters in Nevada, a record number for the state. Record registration numbers coincided with record participation, as the state has reported more than 1.3 million Nevada voters cast ballots in this year’s election.

And those October numbers aren’t a complete picture of how many active registered voters had the opportunity to participate in Nevada’s election, as thousands registered in-person on Nov. 3 through the state’s new same-day registration system.

Same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration were two major changes that took effect this year, compounding changes brought on by the pandemic-driven shift toward mail-in voting and making this past election unlike any other in Nevada.

But with these new opportunities for registration there still came inconveniences.

Physical DMV offices closed in the state on March 17 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and remained largely closed through June 15, limiting transactions that are necessary for many individuals in the state to register to vote. The Nevada Republican Party has pointed to individuals who say they were prevented from voting because they were new residents and were unable to obtain IDs needed to register on Election Day.

Representatives of the department said they aren’t aware of anyone who was turned away or denied service. They noted they’ve been working to provide services for anyone who hadn’t been able to access DMV services during closures.

In Nevada, Oct. 6 was the deadline for registering to vote in-person or by mail, and Oct. 29 was the deadline to register to vote online. To register online or in-person during early voting or on Election Day, individuals must have a Nevada state ID. 

From Oct. 10 to Nov. 3, the DMV in Nevada expanded walk-in hours for new residents. Typically, without an appointment, new residents are able to walk in on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but the schedule change added two-hour walk-in periods every morning, Monday through Friday. On Election Day, the DMV also allowed new residents to walk-in all day as long as they surrendered an out-of-state license or ID.

DMV Director Julie Butler said these decisions were made to help address a “backlog” of new residents who were unable to access the DMV during office closures.

Automatic Voter Registration

Tens of thousands of new voters were registered through the state’s new automatic voter registration (AVR) process this year, although reduced DMV transactions appear to have dampened the impact of the new system.

AVR took effect in January 2020, implementing a system where individuals who complete certain DMV transactions, such as driver’s license renewals, are registered to vote or update their registration information unless they manually opt-out. The deadline for registration through this process was Oct. 6, the same as the deadline for other forms of in-person voter registration.

Based on data submitted to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee by the secretary of state’s office, the state has reported 359,603 covered transactions occurring at the DMV from January through September that allowed for new registrations or changes to existing registrations. Of those, 101,723 resulted in a new registered voter. 

Some customers who completed transactions online were still able to be automatically registered during DMV closures from March through June, but the numbers drastically decreased, limiting the number of new Nevadans who could be registered.

January and February brought more than 60,000 covered transactions each month, but in April, when offices fully closed, only 12,319 covered transactions occurred. The AVR process can still take place online through the MyDMV system, but there are fewer transactions that can be completed online than can be completed in-person. Additionally, deadline extensions for registration renewals and other transactions reduced the number of transactions necessary during the spring and summer months.

Automatic registrations increased again once when physical DMV offices were able to resume more operations, with nearly 56,000 covered transactions occurring in August and 72,000 occurring in September. 

Beyond pandemic-related barriers, gaining access to the DMV in Nevada in order to secure a state ID can be difficult for many, including elderly residents and others who do not drive and don’t have transport to get to an office. Additionally, people of color and individuals who live below the poverty line are more likely to live a long distance away from a DMV office.

Post-election, and even before the measure passed in 2019, some have claimed that automatic registration enables non-citizens to register, allowing them to receive mail-in ballots this year, but the DMV says it has multiple safeguards in place to ensure that non-citizens are not registered through the system.

Any customer who checks the box indicating they are not a citizen on a DMV application is automatically excluded from the system, whether or not they opt out. Additionally, any paperwork such as a permanent resident card which must be submitted to receive a license deems a customer ineligible to vote, and that customer will be excluded from the system and provided with a Notice of Ineligibility print-out. The same system is used to ensure that individuals who will not be 18 by the next election are not registered.

Driver Authorization Cards, which authorize driving for people who cannot meet the proof of identity requirements for a driver’s license or state ID and are commonly utilized by non-citizens, are also excluded from covered transactions.

New residents

New Nevadans’ participation in the election also hinges on DMV operations, as those residents must obtain Nevada IDs in order to register online or in-person during early voting or on Election Day.

DMV officials told The Nevada Independent that 54,441 new residents surrendered out-of-state IDs and received temporary or permanent Nevada identification from January through October of 2020. That’s below the typical pace — between 2017 and 2019, the average number of new residents who surrendered IDs statewide each year was 101,362. 

The number of new residents able to take advantage of DMV services was affected by the shutdown of in-person services this year, and follows a similar trend to the covered AVR transactions.

In January and February, more than 8,000 new residents surrendered out-of-state IDs each month. In March, that number was cut in half, and in April, the state was not able to provide any services to new residents as these transactions cannot occur online and must happen in-office.

Limited operations resumed in May for those seeking commercial driver’s licenses, and the DMV offices reopened for in-person services June 15. While July and August were still relatively slow compared to pre-pandemic operations, on Sept. 19, the DMV began offering new residents services on Saturdays.

In October, with expanded hours to cater to a wave of new residents hoping to secure state IDs prior to the election in order to register and vote, more than 12,000 residents surrendered out-of-state IDs.

Among other allegations included on the Nevada Republican Party’s Twitter account regarding voter fraud and disenfranchisement were stories from new residents in Nevada who said they were denied temporary IDs when they visited the DMV on Election Day. In a series of tweets from Nov. 5, the Nevada GOP account listed new residents who said they had attempted to get IDs but were unable to get appointments.

The DMV pushed back on those reports.

“To our knowledge, DMV offices did not turn away any new resident due to a lack of appointments or capacity to process their transactions,” said Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the DMV.

Of the 12,686 ID surrenders during the month of October, 6,273 happened during the early voting period from Oct 17-30. Additionally, the DMV reported receiving 908 surrendered IDs from new residents on Election Day alone.

Same-day registration

Tens of thousands of voters were able to participate because of same-day voter registration, a policy passed in 2019 that first took effect during the primary election this June. The new law  allows individuals to register or update their registration even after the in-person and online deadlines in October.

During early voting and on Election Day, 64,286 Nevadans participated in same-day voter registration, 35 percent of whom registered as Democrats, 36 percent as Republicans, and 29 percent as nonpartisan or with smaller parties. These registrations resulted in 27,646 newly registered voters, including 10,878 Republicans and 9,368 Democrats, and 36,640 voters with updated information such as a new address or party affiliation.

Voters who register through this method cast provisional ballots, which are filled out in person and look like regular ballots but cannot be counted until election officials verify a voter is qualified to vote, has not already voted in the election, and provided all necessary proof of residency, including a current state ID.

These provisional ballots have lengthened the time it has taken to fully report results in the state, something election officials warned would result from the measure before it passed. Advocates for the measure acknowledge that issue, but maintain that the extra opportunity it allows for those who miss initial deadlines outweighs a delay in results.

“With same-day registration, vote centers, restoration of voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, and other updates to our voting system, Nevadans were able to make their voices heard like never before,” Emily Zamora, executive director of the voting rights advocacy group Silver State Voices, said in a press release the night of the election. “Now that voting is over, we must ensure that our registrars and statewide election officials are able to count every single ballot.”

Salvadoran consul: TPS beneficiaries unable to renew licenses at Nevada DMV

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

Local beneficiaries of an immigration program whose future remains uncertain are facing a new concern: problems renewing their driver's license at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The General Consul of El Salvador in Las Vegas, Tirso Sermeño, said Wednesday that his office has received several reports of people with legal residency under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program whose documentation was rejected when they went to the Nevada DMV to renew their driver's license.

"We have a problem here, and it’s very serious," Sermeño said during an interview for Cafecito with Luz and Michelle radio show.

DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said in an email Thursday that the problem is affecting TPS recipients from multiple countries and is playing out at licensing agencies across the U.S., although he did not have statistics on how many people have been affected so far. He said the issue emerged because the DMV verifies lawful status through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) System, used because of the complex requirements of the various programs conferring legal status.

The SAVE system is currently only showing the original date that the Trump administration prescribed TPS would be cancelled, rather than the fact that the cancellation has been suspended while the issue plays out in the courts, and Nevada DMV staff are unable to override that. For beneficiaries from El Salvador, legal status was set to expire in September 2019, at which time they would have had to return to their country or become undocumented in the U.S.

“Unfortunately, at this point there is no immediate solution,” Malone said. “We do sympathize with the affected residents and we do not just turn them away. They are eligible for Driver Authorization Cards and we encourage them to obtain one.”

He said the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency over the SAVE system, has pledged to upgrade the system and reflect the true expiration date for protections under TPS.

In early 2018, the federal government announced that the TPS program for El Salvador would end on September 9, 2018, saying that conditions had sufficiently improved in the country that the nearly 200,000 beneficiaries (who in turn have nearly 200,000 U.S. citizen children) could return home.

But last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Network of Day Laborers Organizations, among others, filed the Ramos v. Nielsen lawsuit, leading to a court decision to prohibit the government's cancellation of the TPS program for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador while the case is being resolved in court.

In compliance with a federal court mandate in March 2018, the DHS published a second notice in the Federal Register announcing it is automatically extending through January 2, 2020, the validity of TPS-related Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), Forms I-797, Notice of Action (Approval Notice), and Forms I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record.)

But Sermeño said that despite the DHS notification, the new automatic extension date of January 2, 2020, for the TPS program isn’t showing up in the system the DMV uses — meaning the legal status of the applicant can’t be verified.

"When they go to the DMV with a note stating they were sent in by them to renew their license, with their work permit, with a copy from the Federal Register, or the note we gave them, the DMV simply is refusing to process them," Sermeño said in Spanish.

The DMV is recommending that TPS beneficiaries request a Driver Authorization Card — issued to those who don’t qualify for a license or an ID card — but such a card can only be used to drive legally and is not valid for federal purposes such as boarding an aircraft. The card is also not valid to determine eligibility for state services, and private businesses have discretion on whether to accept it to, say, verify a person’s age to sell alcohol.

Sermeño said it’s the first time such a problem has occurred because TPS has not previously been subject to legal disputes like it is now.

USCIS points out that TPS beneficiaries who need to show their current legal status to obtain a driver's license or other benefits must have their alien registration number or I-94 number, which appears in several immigration documents, including the TPS.

The DMV states that as proof of identity, those who were born outside the United States and have an expired green card may file an I-797 Form in order to show an approved extension.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would cancel or give a final extension to the legal status for hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of the TPS program from Yemen, Nepal, Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, leaving thousands of them at risk of deportation if Congress and the federal government fail to reach a permanent solution, which hasn’t happened so far.

If the court revokes the preliminary injunction in Ramos v. Nielsen injunction and that decision is final, the cancellation of TPS designations for these four countries will be in effect.

In mid-2018, TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador based in Maryland reported they were having trouble renewing their driver's license at the their state’s Motor Vehicle Administration, although that agency later said it was already taking care of those cases.

Sermeño said the consulate is in contact with the DMV, Gov. Steve Sisolak's office and Nevada’s congressional delegation, while the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington, D.C. is already in touch with the DHS.

"We have these two battlefronts," Sermeño said. "We are seeing how we can help our TPS beneficiaries to renew their license."

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report. 

Prisons director: More than half of inmates have no identification upon release

Even after a push to help inmates obtain their birth certificates, more than half of the people who are released from Nevada prisons have no form of identification when they leave — and it severely hinders their chances of success in the community, the head of the Nevada Department of Corrections told lawmakers.

Prisons Director James Dzurenda made his comments Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. Although NDOC spokeswoman Brooke Santina couldn’t provide exact figures on how many inmates had been released with no ID, the agency releases about 6,200 people a year, so Dzurenda’s estimate of 50 percent would mean more than 3,000 inmates are leaving without one each year.

“When we take all identification away from an offender, how do they get a place to stay? How do they get a hotel without identification? They can’t,” Dzurenda said in the hearing. “How do you get the resources, get into community programs without any identification or even get your pharmaceutical drugs that you need for treatment?”

Lawmakers last session approved a bill requiring NDOC to verify — with original documentation such as a birth certificate — the true name and age of a person before giving out any ID card. Minutes from 2017 indicated NDOC did not testify on the bill, and neither the DMV nor the NDOC told the lawmakers it might cost money.

When NDOC sought funding months later to hire more staff to comply with the new requirement, lawmakers questioned why the matter didn’t come up during the session. Meeting the goal has been difficult even after several staffers were hired to try to help inmates secure a birth certificate.

Out of the 12,959 inmates in prison as of earlier this month, 8,773 of them, or more than two-thirds, do not have a birth certificate on file.

NDOC says it has processed 4,707 birth certificates so far. In some cases, inmates had the documentation already or had received help in getting it through partners such as the Clark County Detention Center. The number of birth certificates that NDOC alone processed last calendar year is 3,733, Santina said.

But to help inmates when the certificates can’t be obtained, the NDOC has proposed a bill this session that would once again give prison officials the option again to offer an unverified ID, which would be clearly labeled as such.

In the past, the Department of Motor Vehicles has raised concerns about having any involvement with less-than-airtight IDs.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure the integrity of the cards that we produce is accurate,” DMV official Jude Hurin testified in 2017. “We cannot compromise on that, and I stress that because we are an agency that, when we create a driver's license or ID card, people rely on our vetting process.”

Dzurenda said inmates can be tough cases because they are often booked under aliases and it can be impossible to tell whether the name they give police is the correct one. But he noted that even if an unverified NDOC ID is not backed up by a birth certificate, the data on it is linked to the inmate’s DNA profile.

“I understand why [the DMV] didn't want to have an unverified ID because they fear the falsification of ID, but [inmates] could do that anyway,” Dzurenda said. “I mean, they don't need us to make an ID, they could make one anywhere else they want, but right now when we don't release inmates with anything they can't get services.”

DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said his agency didn’t have any comment on the latest proposal to allow unverified IDs for prisoners and is still discussing the bill with other agencies.

How it works

NDOC says the agency has been asking inmates upon intake if they have their birth certificate. If not, they provide them an application for vital records from their state of birth.

If an inmate turns in the application, NDOC’s vital records staff logs the request and attaches any additional paperwork to the application, depending on the state’s requirements to obtain birth certificates. Any fees for a birth certificate are drawn from an inmate’s bank account, and the certificate is sent to the prison, which stores it in the inmate’s file.

But many inmates refuse to fill out the form, or spend the money to order one because they don’t expect to be released any time soon. Birth certificates can cost anywhere from $7 to $34 depending on the state, according to Ballotpedia.

Beyond that, there are hurdles with obtaining birth certificates from other countries. Mexico, for example, does not allow its consulates to distribute birth certificates and requires someone to be in the country to get one.

Dzurenda says he is working with the Latin Chamber of Commerce to try to smooth the process for birth certificates from Latin America, and prison officials said they are also working with embassies to see if there might be a one-stop shop for obtaining the documents.

Aside from during the intake process, staff from the prisons’ vital records department periodically visit institutions and spend the day in a housing unit to try to get the ball rolling on more birth certificates. But it’s not easy — Santina said other states sometimes take 14-16 weeks to process a request and send the certificate back to Nevada.

“We will never have 100 percent compliance in this endeavor,” she said.