Organizers believe Nevada Native turnout was historic, despite gaps in exit poll data

Tribal leaders moved into the 2020 general election campaign season with the same goal held by other organizers — to achieve high voter turnout and elevate the voices and concerns of their fellow community members. 

It’s difficult to quantify Native voter turnout rates because of the lack of data collection for the demographic, unlike for Latino, Black and Asian voters. But in spite of the data gaps, leaders behind the Native vote mobilization efforts in Nevada say they achieved their objective.

“Our goal this year was to have the largest Native voter turnout in Nevada's history,” Teresa Melendez, vice chair of the Nevada Native American Caucus, said during a meeting with caucus members last week. “I'm confident that we met that goal. We had a ton of first time Native voters. And I think that our communities did a great job about creating excitement around voting, I think more than we've ever seen.”

The Nevada Native Vote Project, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization spearheaded by Teresa Melendez and her husband, Brian Melendez, organized get-out-the-vote events, advocated for increased polling locations and ballot drop boxes closer to remote reservations and put together Election Day events across the state’s colonies and reservations. 

Brian and Teresa Melendez of the Nevada Native Vote Project on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 at the University of Nevada, Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The organization also offered fuel gift cards to voters who needed to drive an hour or more to the nearest polling location in an effort to ensure tribal voters had greater access to the polls this year amid what the Native American Rights Fund called the “tyranny of distance” in a recent report. 

That effort was scrutinized in the Nevada GOP’s latest lawsuit against the state, in which it alleged that items offered at various events organized to mobilize voters, such as the fuel cards, T-shirts, stickers and face masks, created incentives for Native voters to vote specifically for the Biden-Harris ticket. 

Ethan Doig, strategy coordinator for the Nevada Native Vote Project, said the GOP’s claims are baseless, as the organization engaged with Biden and Trump voters “across the board.” 

Efforts were driven by the belief that Native voters have the potential to be a powerful voting bloc and electorate, he said, if only they could be reached and mobilized successfully — something the leaders of the Nevada Native American Caucus said neither the Nevada Democratic Party, Republican Party nor state government have taken the lead on. 

After interacting with elected officials and candidates during the 2020 campaign season, it became clear to the Native American Caucus leaders that candidates lacked awareness of Native issues — and their status as sovereign nations. Teresa Melendez acknowledged that had to be a focus of organization efforts ahead of the election — to simply educate local and state leaders on the state’s 27 tribes. 

“So it was very clear that we have a lot of work that we need to do to build those relationships to have those conversations, but then also recognizing that the onus of responsibility is on our elected officials to understand the constituents they serve,” Teresa Melendez said. “They need to take on that burden and educate themselves.” 

Making Native voters visible through data collection 

Teresa Melendez’s sentiment is echoed in the preface of the 2020 Indigenous Futures Survey, a recent effort to collect clearer and more comprehensive data on behalf of the Native Organizers Alliance, the Center for Native American Youth and Illuminative, a nonprofit organization focused on boosting awareness about Native people and issues. 

The survey included more than 6,400 Native participants from 400 of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes across the country, including 269 Nevada Natives, who accounted for 4 percent of the survey sample. 

The 2010 Census reported an estimated population of nearly 3 million Native people living in the U.S. across 35 states. Of those, 60,000 over the age of 18 were reported to reside in Nevada, with the caveat that the Native population is historically undercounted by the census. Tribal leaders such as Brian Melendez believe the number to be even greater. 

“Many national narratives dismiss the Native vote as inconsistent, Native people as unengaged, or our population as too small to make a difference in elections. But the political power of Native peoples has been more visible in recent years,” the report says. “As the 2020 election approaches, there is increasing awareness of the importance and potential impact of an engaged Native electorate, especially in seven swing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada.” 

In addition to the recent mobilization efforts on behalf of the Nevada Native Vote Project and the Nevada Native American Caucus, the early 2020 caucus season also saw the state’s second-ever Native American presidential candidate forum where then-Democratic hopefuls including Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren appeared in-person and virtually to discuss Native issues. 

Of the nearly 270 respondents from Nevada included in the survey, 67 percent reported having voted in the last local, state and national elections, in comparison to 77 percent of all respondents. 

Nevada’s respondents also identified the distance to the nearest polling location as too far away and the inability to access a polling location because of work hours as the top two barriers keeping them from voting.

Vast stretches of road between reservations and the nearest post offices require Native voters to drive long distances and spend extra money on gas, while many do not even own a vehicle. 

Additionally, many homes on reservations do not have addresses or P.O. boxes. These points were illuminated by Nevada tribal nations earlier this summer, as they fought to preserve the right to vote by mail by joining a lawsuit on behalf of the state

Brian Melendez noted the distance barrier in multiple letters sent to county election officials and to Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske ahead of the election asking for closer polling locations or ballot drop boxes for the Duck Valley and Fort McDermitt reservations in Northern Nevada near Elko. 

Map from the Nevada Native Vote Project letter to Elko County election officials illustrating the distance between the Duck Valley Reservation and the nearest polling locations.

“It is important to take these commonsense and nonpartisan steps to guarantee that all of Elko County’s Native voters have access to early voting sites and drop box locations, and to ensure that voters are not forced to choose between their health and their fundamental right to vote,” Brian Melendez wrote in the letter addressed to Cegavske and the Elko County Clerk. 

The expanded Nevada voting law, AB4, created a provision that allowed a voter’s family members or friends to drop ballots on their behalf, which granted greater access to voting for those living in remote communities, enabling just one person to drive the hour or more to the nearest polling location.

As for the issues most important to residents of Indian Country, respondents diverged from the nationally popular issues of improving the economy, bridging racial inequality, containing the coronavirus pandemic and improving access to health care. 

The top priority issue for Native respondents across the country was improving mental health, with 69 percent of survey respondents placing it at the top of their list. Caring for tribal elders came next at 65 percent, followed by addressing violence against women, children and LGBTQ+ individuals, with 64 percent. Preserving tribal languages was the fourth priority issue, with 63 percent of respondents saying it was a top concern for them.

Among Nevada respondents, the top two priority issues were caring for tribal elders, then improving mental health. 

And while no racial or ethnic voting bloc is a monolith, including Native voters, the majority of Nevada’s respondents identified as Democrat, at 52 percent. Thirty-two percent of respondents identified as independent, seven percent as Republican and three percent as Democratic Socialist. 

Of those surveyed across the U.S., 60 percent identified their political stance as “liberal” and more than one-third identified as “moderate” or “conservative.” 

The national breakdown was slightly different from that of Nevada. Specifically, 51 percent of Native respondents identified as Democrat, 26 percent as independent, nine percent as Democratic Socialist and seven percent as Republican. Of those, Democratic Socialists and Democrats most often said they were likely to vote in an election at 89 and 86 percent, respectively, followed by Republicans at 76 percent and independents at 67 percent. 

An Edison Research national exit poll showed the “other” race category, which included Native voters, swinging left this year, with 58 percent supporting President-elect Joe Biden. 

First-time Nevada Native voters turned out to the polls 

The leftward swing garnered national media attention in historically red states with large Native populations, flipping some for the first time in years in favor of Democrat and President-elect Biden. This included Arizona, where it is estimated there are more than 200,000 eligible Native voters and which saw more than 100,000 Native voters turn out to the polls. 

Local news outlets for states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Wisconsin also highlighted the Native turnout and support for Biden, although Donald Trump won the electoral college votes for Montana. 

However, Nevada Native voters who spoke with The Nevada Independent ahead of the election fell across the political spectrum. 

First-time Native voters Larsa Guzman and Morgan Thomas, enrolled members of the Shoshone Paiute Tribe and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, respectively, both voted for President-elect Biden, saying Trump didn’t seem very presidential to them. 

“He doesn't talk as if he was a president,” said Guzman, 19. “And just the way that his full party thinks they could treat other people like, he's the reason why all these nasty people get to come out and just think they can say what they want. In reality, it's rude and not humane.”

She said her father cast a vote for Trump, though, citing what he saw as policy benefits to the economy. Her mother joined her in voting for Biden, and Guzman said she hopes Biden can make progress on issues such as preserving a woman’s right to choose abortion afforded by Roe v. Wade, provide additional resources or forgiveness for student’s college loans, increase funding toward education and address climate change. 

Thomas, 19, had a different story — she had planned to vote for Trump but decided on Biden following the vice presidential debate that featured Vice President Mike Pence and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

“I really personally think she's a great lady. She's for the people. And I feel her and Biden teamed together, they can really help our people and not only like our people, but minorities in general,” Thomas said. 

Thomas said the way Trump spoke about minorities, specifically immigrants who are overrepresented in frontline and essential jobs amid the pandemic, upset her. But she also thinks Trump had a strong and positive influence on the economy. 

Both Guzman and Thomas said they have many friends who chose not to participate in the election, despite being eligible to vote, and that those people cited a lack of engagement by and distrust in both presidential candidates as reasons. 

Louis Afraid of Hawk, 18, took a different approach to supporting the Native vote ahead of the election that included Little Fly, a reddish-brown horse with a white streak on his nose. 

Although he was eligible to vote, Afraid of Hawk didn’t cast a ballot this year. Neither of the presidential candidates caught his attention, he said, so he didn’t pay close attention to the election. 

But he spent a few hours riding Little Fly through the Yomba Shoshone Reservation, about a three-hour drive east from Reno, carrying a few ballots that he delivered to the tribal director who then delivered the ballots to the polling location in Tonopah, which is a two-hour drive from the reservation.

He rode alongside Rusty Brady and Daniel Hooper, other Yomba Shoshone tribal members, and their horses, including KJ, a white horse with one white and one blue eye.

“It was pretty exciting and fun. I had a good time going out and interacting with the community and being able to use my horses, and ride around and pick up the ballots and make sure everything was okay,” Afraid of Hawk said. 

He said he’s interested in participating in the voting process in the future, especially if it’ll help his Native community. 

Aiming for increased Native visibility: ‘We’re still very much in this election’ 

While Native voter mobilization efforts and turnout rates captured attention across the country, Native people celebrated historic wins in representation. 

The 2018 midterm elections saw the first two Native women elected to congressional seats in Kansas and New Mexico — Reps. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, respectively. Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation Tribe and Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe. 

Both Davids and Haaland were re-elected to their seats in November, and so were Oklahoma Native Republican Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin. In addition to those four congressional seats, November saw New Mexico Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell’s election to the House and Hawaii Democratic Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele’s election to previous Democratic presidential candidate hopeful Tulsi Gabbard’s seat. 

That’s a record-breaking six Native congressional representatives across the country — three Democrats, three Republicans, three women and three men. 

While Nevada tribal leaders say they are eager to continue their work to improve voting processes in their communities, they are now dealing with the latest allegation put forth by the state GOP, which accuses the Nevada Native Vote Project of offering incentives to vote for Biden during its voting drives.

“Offering something of value to a voter in exchange for his or her vote is a violation of Federal and Nevada law,” states the lawsuit. “All such votes cast in exchange for the above described incentives are, therefore, illegal and improper votes.” 

The organization offered “Natives Vote” T-shirts, face masks, posters, stickers and other items. But group leaders say they did not try to require or persuade people to vote one way or the other in order to receive the items, or to even vote at all. 

Nevada state law prohibits bribery to influence an elector in giving their vote or deterring their vote under NRS 293.

Deputy Secretary of State for Nevada Wayne Thorley said Wednesday the GOP’s claims are “under review” at this time. 

The Nevada Native Vote Project has since responded to the allegations with an official statement that clarifies the people wearing Biden-Harris apparel and buttons mentioned in the lawsuit were not “sanctioned, facilitated, funded” by the organization, nor did they belong to the organization as intellectual property. 

The organization continues to call the GOP’s attempt to invalidate Native voters’ ballots “suppression,” and their investigation “sloppy” and “racist.” 

“The Nevada Native Vote Project is determined to defend our communities against the precedent of voter intimidation and suppression this lawsuit is attempting to create,” reads the statement. “Collective action from our communities has always been met by opposition and suspicion. Principally, this is because the equity of participation is a threat to people in a position of power.”

The organization celebrates its success in turning out Native voters in what it called record numbers and closes its statement looking forward to the future.

“In America, we believe in upholding the democratic transfer of power and we are ready to move forward together to tackle our shared challenges and ensure a better future for every American.” 

With the election (mostly) over, the work to create lasting change for Indian Country is only beginning for tribal leaders leading the Nevada Native American Caucus, which has operated within the state Democratic Party since 2019. The group is preparing to advocate for Native issues in the 2021 legislative session. 

“A great deal of our advocacy work comes from the fact that Nevada lacks critical infrastructure and visibility for Native communities in the state,” said Doig, who is also the senior policy advisor and campaign committee chair for the Native caucus. “And so, a significant portion of our work right now is reallocating our time for data collection and analysis, which will better support our advocacy work moving forward into the legislative session here in February.”

Although 2020 voting has ended, it remains a focus for the caucus, which will continue to advocate for voting reform and expanded access to polling locations and ballot boxes for voters living on remote reservations.

“Among other things that were made explicitly clear as a need for the community out of this election is a really an overwhelming and comprehensive reform of our voting infrastructure and process, which doesn't adequately support the unique circumstances of Nevada's geographic, financial and social circumstances that directly relate to the Native tribes,” Doig said. 

He added that the caucus is committed to the long run, so state political parties should take notice. 

“We're in the game to change the landscape of Nevada,” he said. “That's the goal. And so if they want to play ball, they're going to play ball and they're going to meet us where we stand.” 

Updated at 9:22 a.m. and 9:40 a.m. on 11/20/2020 to include a graph for Nevada Native voters political identity by party and include an image of the letter sent to the Nevada Secretary of State on behalf of the Nevada Native Vote Project.

Attorneys spar on Trump campaign lawsuit seeking last-minute changes to Clark County’s ballot processing system; judge expected to rule soon

A District Court judge says he’ll make a decision soon on a major lawsuit by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and Nevada Republicans to make substantial changes to Clark County’s process of counting of mail ballots.

Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson said he’ll have a decision ready “as soon as possible” after a nearly nine-hour evidentiary hearing Wednesday in the lawsuit seeking various changes to how the state’s most populous county processes mail votes and allows for volunteers and others to observe the counting of ballots.

Wilson on Friday rejected a request by the president’s re-election campaign and the state Republican Party to issue an emergency restraining order stopping mail ballot counting in the county until a “meaningful” observation plan could be put in place.

Any major changes to the county’s current system for processing mail votes — more than 294,000 mail ballots have been returned as of Wednesday — could lead to substantial delays and a high risk that the county would not be able to finish counting ballots by the deadline imposed in state law.

Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria, who was cross-examined during the hearing, said he was fairly confident that the county would not be able to process all returned ballots if the court orders them to stop using a ballot-counting and signature-verification machine, which checks and accepts about 30 percent of mailed-in ballots (the rest are checked by election workers).

But on Wednesday, attorney Jesse Binnall — representing the Trump campaign and state party — said the plaintiffs have narrowed their request for an emergency order to five things; “meaningful” observation of every stage of ballot processing; a camera inside the vault used to store ballots in a county facility; an end to separating ballots and envelopes sequentially; a way to “challenge” mail ballots; and for the county to cease use of a machine that automatically checks signatures before county employees check them by hand.

Though the president has tweeted that final election results must be known on Nov. 3, Binnall said that the court had a duty to intervene in the process to ensure that no questions exist over the final election results.

“It is more important that we get this right, than we get it quick,” Binnall said. “It’s more important that we have an election result in Nevada that we can rely upon."

But attorneys for Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, Clark County and the state Democratic Party (which intervened in the case) said that those requests lacked the standing necessary for Wilson or any court to take the substantial step of changing election procedures less than a week before Election Day.

“All of the evidence that they have submitted today is speculative,” Clark County attorney Mary-Anne Miller said during the hearing. “They have not identified any error or any fraud that's taking place on behalf of any voter.”

Deputy Solicitor General Greg Zunino, representing the secretary of state’s office, added that the aim of the lawsuit was generally murky, and that it appeared it was being brought to disrupt ballot-counting in the most Democrat-friendly county in the state.

“I want to be candid: Clark County is a blue county, and this is a numbers game,” he said. “And they, quite frankly, would like to exclude as many ballots or signatures in Clark County as they can. They want a higher rejection rate in Clark County, and it's all about crunching numbers at this point.”

Much of Thursday’s hearing included testimony from about a half dozen Trump campaign volunteer poll observers, who outlined a variety of concerns ranging from signature verification, an inability to clearly see the ballot processing machine or challenge any potential irregularities, county staff moving ballots into rooms without observers and potential issues with signature verification.

Many of the poll observers testified that they had seen issues that could potentially lead to electoral misconduct, such as not being able to fully see all ballot processing stations or signature verification machines, county employee “runners” bringing ballots to rooms without observers, or not being able to dispute any potential illegal or illicit activity to election officials at the time they occur.

While none testified that they had seen outright fraud, Binnall said that the testimony indicated a troubling lack of transparency from the county’s election process, and that in the “heat of an election,” individuals might be tempted to tamper with the results without meaningful oversight in place.

“This is a huge responsibility we've given these people, and they're not subject to any transparency, they're not subject to observers,” he said. “So all we're asking for is some meaningful way to observe this process, some meaningful way also to observe the signature matching process.”

Zunino, representing the secretary of state, conceded that several of the procedural defects raised by the plaintiffs could have merit, but they would better be dealt with by the Legislature, rather than ordered by a judge just a few days before the election.

“That's simply not something that the courts, pardon me, are competent to do on the eve of an election,” he said.

Zunino additionally added that a general fear of voter fraud that would “dilute” ballots of law-following voters was generally not sufficient standing for a last-minute legal request to change election laws — something that other courts, including in Nevada, have generally agreed upon in election-related cases.

“That's not a particularized injury,” he said. “That is an abstract, general injury. It's an injury to everyone.”

Binnall also challenged Gloria over the use of the county’s ballot counting and signature verification machine, which it purchased earlier this year in anticipation of a rush of mail votes owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gloria said the machine has so far accepted about 30 percent of signatures attached to ballots right off the bat, and that he had lowered the default settings after testing it with other groups of signatures. Signatures matched by the machine are not mechanically checked by election employees.

Binnall said that the signature verification machine generally required a certain resolution (200 DPI, or dots per inch), and that many of the signatures on file were transferred over from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles typically had a lower resolution, below the recommended 200 DPI level.

Even though Gloria testified that his office could likely not finish the ballot count in time if use of the machine was prohibited, Binnall said it was more important to fully ensure that signatures were mechanically verified and not use a machine attempting to match signatures off of poor quality images.

“These are not heavy lifts,” he said. “Yes, it might take a little bit longer, but only 30 percent, for instance, of the votes make it through this machine anyhow.”

But Miller, the attorney representing the county, said the machine was used to capture the “low-hanging fruit” of signatures that closely resemble those on record with the office, and that there was no evidence presented that it was allowing a massive number of forgeries or other compromised ballots through.

Wayne Thorley, the former deputy secretary of state for elections, testified that Clark County’s ballot rejection rate of 1.35 percent was in line with the typical rejection rate statewide and in most other counties.

Miller added that the state Republican Party had known about the county’s plan to use the machine for signature verification as early as June (as part of earlier litigation over the state’s primary election), but had waited until ballots were actually being counted to challenge its use in court — setting up a potentially bigger disruption to the county and state’s election system than if nothing was done.

“They wait until we're in the middle, literally in the middle of counting those ballots to ask us to stop,” she said. “If we stop using that machine, we would have to go out and try to find additional election workers and train them. Mr. Gloria says it's very unlikely that we'll meet our statutory deadline, if at this late date the court comes in and orders us to change our process.”

The Indy Explains: What to do if the wrong mail ballot is sent to your address

Nevada’s decision to send out mail ballots to all registered voters for the 2020 election means that some voters have received a surprise in their mailbox — a ballot addressed to someone else.

It’s not unusual, especially in a highly transient state such as Nevada, for a person to receive mail meant for former residents. But the state’s decision to automatically mail out ballots means that voters have a higher-than-normal chance of receiving a ballot meant for someone else.

During the state’s June primary election, more than 223,000 ballots were returned as undeliverable mail — though a significant percentage of those ballots were mailed to ‘inactive’ voters (meaning they failed to confirm their address with the county but are still registered to vote). Inactive voters will not receive mail ballots for the state’s 2020 general election.

State and county officials say that ballots are sent to the wrong address because of issues with keeping voter rolls up to date. Election officials are typically not informed when someone moves out of state or to a different in-state residence (unless they register to vote at that new address), so there is sometimes a lag between addresses listed on the rolls and actual residences of voters.

So what should you do if you receive another person’s mail ballot?

Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley said that voters who receive ballots for individuals not living at their address should write “Not at this address” in large letters on the outside of the envelope and put it back in the mail.

“It will get returned to the county election officials, and they can use that information to make the necessary changes in the voter rolls,” he said in a text message.

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula said during a press briefing last week that ballots are sometimes sent to the wrong address when voters make a late update to their address on the voter registration database, after initial mail ballots are processed or sent out. 

She said the office is able to ‘suspend’ the initial ballot sent to a wrong address and issue a new one based on individual registration numbers attached to each mail ballot, but added that it helps to have the ‘suspended’ ballot sent back to the office with a notice on the envelope that the voter doesn’t live at that address anymore.

“It does happen,” she said. “It doesn't hurt to call our office and see which one was issued at the last point, because that's the one we want to count. That way we can account for all of our ballots that are out, and the ones that have been suspended.”

The Washoe County Registrar's office can be reached at 775-328-3670, or at absentballot@washoecounty.us.

A spokesman for the Clark County Election Department said that voters who receive a mail ballot sent to the wrong address should call 702-455-VOTE (8683) to help resolve the issue.

Election officials generally suggest reaching out to county election offices if you do not receive a ballot within seven days of it being mailed out. A list of county clerk contact information can be found here.

Voters can also cast their ballot in person during the two-week early voting period or on Election Day. If a person arrives at the polling site without a mail ballot, they’ll be asked to sign an affidavit saying that they will not also mail in a ballot.

Nevada election officials have taken some preliminary steps to address issues with updated voter roles, including becoming a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) nonprofit, a data-sharing operation that helps states update their voter registration information based on individuals who move out of state, die, or duplicate registrations within the same state.

But only 30 states are part of that organization, with many — notably California — not cross-checking their voter registration information through the group.

Mailings from the Nevada Republican Party indicating residents are unregistered to vote cause confusion

Two students at voter registration table

When Gaye Nickles, 71, checked her mailbox one afternoon, she was disconcerted to find a mailing with the words, "NOTICE: OUR RECORDS INDICATE YOU ARE NOT REGISTERED TO VOTE," emblazoned across the front of a letter featuring a logo resembling Nevada's state seal.

Nickles, a retiree, has lived in Washoe County for about half a century, and has voted in every election since she and her husband moved to Nevada. She has also volunteered in voter registration drives and at polling locations in past elections.

"I did the first thing that you would do, and that is check. Check to see that you are registered. We both are," Nickles said.

The mailing, which came from the state Republican Party, also included a voter registration form Nickles had never seen before asking her to list her race or ethnic group — a question not included on Nevada's official registration application. It was followed by two subsequent mailings written with similar phrasing and warnings, leaving her perplexed and worried for others who may not speak English as a first language or be familiar with Nevada's voter registration process.

"What if somebody got this and now they were confused about whether or not they registered, whether or not the secretary of state or the registrar's office maybe lost their registration?" Nickles said.

Nickles is not the only one troubled by the mailings, which arrive in an election year when the president of the United States is suing Nevada over a bill expanding mail-in voting for the general election and the U.S. Postal Service sent a postcard with inaccurate information about mail-in voting in Nevada.

Residents throughout Nevada received the same mailings, and various county election officials reported numerous calls from confused voters, Wayne Thorley, the deputy secretary of state for elections, told The Nevada Independent in an email.

The state is not sure how many mailers the Nevada Republican Party sent out, and the Nevada Republican Party did not respond to a request seeking more information.

Voter registration mailing Gaye Nickles received from the Republican Party (Photo Courtesy of Gaye Nickles)

The voter registration form that Nickles had never seen before is the National Mail Voter Registration Form, Thorley explained, and federal law requires states to accept voter registrations completed using the form. The form is developed and maintained by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

"Strictly speaking, the mailers are legal," Thorley wrote. "However, NRS 293.562 does require any group that sends out a mailer like this to 'indicate clearly on the notice that it is not official elections mail from the Secretary of State or a county or city clerk.'"

The mailing from the Nevada Republican Party notes that the form "is not official elections mail from the Secretary of State or a county or city clerk," keeping it in compliance with the law. 

Second registration mailing Gaye Nickles received from the Republican Party (Photo Courtesy of Gaye Nickles)

Every election cycle, third parties or even major political parties send outreach mailers to voters, Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula said in an interview on Wednesday, explaining that mailings often help raise awareness of voter registration. If a registered voter does fill one out, the county updates existing information.

Though the National Mail Voter Registration Form asks about race and ethnicity, Nevada law does not require voters to identify their race or ethnicity to vote. Thorley said Nevada's state-specific instructions tell voters to leave that field on the form blank.

Spikula added that because Washoe County does not collect race or ethnicity identifiers, the registrar's office would omit the field when loading the registration information into its database.

"I received two of those myself," Spikula said, referring to the mailings Nickles received. "I don't care for the wording they use. I think it's confusing and I think they can message better."

Thorley also expressed unease about the phrasing of the registration mailings.

"Obviously, we are supportive of efforts to encourage people to register to vote, but it's not helpful when a currently registered voter gets a notice in the mail indicating that they aren't registered to vote," Thorley said. "It is easy to find out who is currently registered to vote in Nevada. The list is available for free download on the Secretary of State's website."

He added that the most convenient and secure way to register to vote online is through the Secretary of State’s online form because voter information is verified and sent to the county election immediately after the user clicks the ‘submit’ button. Only residents with a Nevada driver’s license or identification card can register to vote online, however, and eligible people without identification cards need to register using the paper form.  

Third registration mailing Gaye Nickles received from the Republican Party (Photo Courtesy of Gaye Nickles)

Around election season, Spikula said she often gets calls from upset voters, letting her know that they received a registration form from a third-party for a relative or loved one who passed away or for someone who had moved out of the property. 

"I wish [third-parties] would work more closely with the election officials in the state and the secretary of state's office to make sure that their data is up to date and we're not mailing these to people who shouldn't receive one because either they're registered or are deceased or don't live in the state anymore," Spikula said.

For more information about the upcoming election, check out The Nevada Independent’s mail-in-voting guide, ballot question explainer and elections guide.

Former Las Vegas man facing charges of double voting in 2016 election

Nevada officials are charging a former Las Vegas resident with double voting in the 2016 election, a relatively rare charge that nonetheless has received more attention amid unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.

Prosecutors with Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office brought the charges against Craig Frank last year, accusing him of voting in both Nevada and Arkansas during early voting periods for the 2016 election. The case was filed on Aug. 13, 2019 in Clark County District Court, and has a jury trial set for February 2021.

The prosecution, which was touted in the attorney general’s recently released 2019-2020 biennial report, was not publicized or reported at the time it was filed. Some of the details of the case were reported last month by the Associated Press.

It’s the first prosecution related to double voting brought by Ford, a Democrat, since he’s taken office in 2018, and just the third prosecuted case of double voting in the state since at least 2011. 

Nevada law holds that double voting in an election is punishable by a Category D felony, with a sentence of up to one to four years in prison. 

Ford has faced criticism from Republicans (namely former Sen. Dean Heller) that his office is not taking the alleged threat of voter fraud seriously. Heller said on a press call last month that Ford’s office isn’t prosecuting cases of double voting.

“While voter fraud is rare, it undermines trust in our election system,” attorney general’s office spokeswoman Monica Moazez said in an email. “After an investigation and review, our office has charged Craig Frank with voting twice, in-person, and he was indicted in the 8th Judicial District Court. This case remains on-going and we cannot provide any further details at this time.”

According to court records and grand jury testimony, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office reached out to state law enforcement with information about people who potentially voted twice during the 2016 presidential election.

Nevada is one of 30 member states of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) nonprofit, a data-sharing operation that helps states update their voter registration information based on individuals who move out of state, die, or duplicate registrations within the same state.

In 2018, a subgroup of states in the ERIC compact agreed to share, analyze and compare voter data from the midterm election to see whether there were any instances of voters casting a ballot in more than one state. The system checked not only names, but also birthdates, social security numbers and signatures either on a mail ballot or polling places. 

That cross-check identified a potential 22 voters who may have cast a ballot in Nevada and another state in the 2018 election; the secretary of state’s office forwarded that information to the state Department of Public Safety’s Investigation Division, which is under state law required to help with cases of possible election fraud.

All 22 cases are active, and none have been formally charged. Part of the reason may be the wording of Nevada’s prohibition on voting in the “same election” — a term that is undefined and could be challenged given differences in state ballots during midterm elections. 

But in the 2016 presidential election, Nevada instead used a data analysis run by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach called the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck (now suspended and subject to litigation) to identify instances of voters casting a ballot in more than one state.

Deputy Secretary of State for Election Wayne Thorley said in an interview that the system identified 21 individuals who may have voted in two states during the 2016 election, including Frank. Of those 21 individuals, two were prosecuted in Arizona for voting twice, several suspected voters have since died, and the rest have not yet been prosecuted.

Investigators said they obtained records showing that Frank voted early at a polling place in Benton, Arkansas on Oct. 28, and then cast another vote in Clark County on Oct. 31. According to voting records on file with the Clark County Election Department, Craig was a registered Republican at the time of the 2016 election.

A state investigator told a grand jury that they contacted Frank directly before obtaining those records “to determine if there was any value in conducting a criminal investigation or not.” Frank allegedly told the investigator that he had indeed voted in both states, and had moved to Nevada to start a job as a teacher with the Clark County School District.

Frank sent an email to the investigator the same day, saying “he had voted in both elections and that he hadn't intended to violate the law and he wasn't aware he couldn't do that.”

Frank has since pled not guilty in the case. Attorneys representing him told the court at an arraignment hearing last year that he has since moved to North Dakota and is working to become a train engineer.

An attorney for Frank did not return a request for comment on Tuesday. 

Nevada has seen just a handful of cases of double voting in recent election cycles, a miniscule number compared to the more than a million ballots typically cast during elections in the state.

There have been at least two prosecutions related to double voting in Nevada since 2011; one was a Republican woman who attempted to vote twice in the 2012 election to try to “show how easy it would be to commit voter fraud with just a signature.” The other was a woman who registered to vote under two names in the 2012 election (as both a Republican and Democrat) and then cast a ballot under each name. Both individuals pled guilty to those charges.

The secretary of state’s office said it had evidence that three noncitizens illegally cast a ballot in the 2016 election, and in 2018, Clark County election officials were forced to call a special mail-only election in the Republican primary for public administrator, after discovering up to 43 possible double votes had been cast because of faulty instruction by poll workers.

The Indy Explains: Everything to know about Nevada’s expanded mail-in election

Nevada’s decision to expand mail-in voting for the 2020 general election has become a partisan battleground, after President Donald Trump’s campaign sued to block the election changes put in place by the state’s Democratically-controlled Legislature in a summer special session.

But beyond the headlines, what changes do Nevada voters need to know about before the 2020 general election arrives on Nov. 3?

Similar to the state’s primary election in June, all active registered voters in the state will automatically receive an absentee ballot without having to take any action. But in the most populous counties of the state — Washoe and Clark — voters will also have dozens of locations where they can cast a vote in person if they wish.

But there are several other election-related changes made in AB4 — the bill implementing the new election procedures and that was passed on party-lines during the most recent legislative special session. It explicitly authorizes ballot collection from non-family members (derided as “ballot harvesting” by some Republicans) and includes provisions allowing for people to help certain individuals, such as the physically disabled or voters over the age of 65.

The heightened attention and political disagreements over the changes for this upcoming election have led to many questions, speculation and sometimes misinformation about how Nevada will conduct the November election.

Below, The Nevada Independent has compiled and answered a list of frequently asked questions regarding the state’s changes and modifications in place for the 2020 election.

When will I get a mail ballot?

AB4 sets deadlines for when mail ballots have to be sent out, but it’s possible that mail ballots will arrive before then. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office says to expect them to be mailed out in late September or early October.

Regardless, the deadlines in the new law require all active voters to be sent a mail-in ballot no later than 20 days before the election, which is Oct. 14. Overseas or military voters are required to receive their ballot no later than 45 days before the election, which is Sept. 19, and voters who live out of state but are still registered to vote in Nevada must receive ballots no later than 40 days before the election, or Sept. 24 .

The language around dates in the law refers to mailing deadlines, not when all voters should have their ballots, so it may take a few extra days to receive a mail ballot.

Counties are still finalizing their election plans, but they will eventually be published on the secretary of state’s website here

What happens if I don’t receive a mail ballot?

The secretary of state’s office recommends contacting your local election clerk if you have not received a mail ballot within a week of the expected mail date.

A list of contact information for all county election clerks can be found here.

The office also recommends updating your mailing information ahead of time. Ballots will be mailed to the address on file with the local election office and — importantly — cannot be forwarded to a new address by the U.S. Postal Service. Voters are encouraged to check their registration and address well in advance of Election Day at www.registertovotenv.gov

What do I need to know to fill out a mail ballot?

Instructions are provided on the envelope sent with every mailed ballot. But there are still a few important things to note before filling out a mail ballot.

For one, don’t forget to sign the outside of the envelope. Signatures are used to confirm a voter’s identity, so if there’s no signature, the vote won’t be counted. If there are issues with a signature, or it doesn’t appear to match the signature on file, county election officials will reach out to a voter and engage in a process called “signature cure,” which gives voters a chance to resolve questions about the signature.

Election officials also say not to include more than one ballot in the return mail envelope.

When do I need to mail or turn in a mail ballot?

Ballots can be filled out and mailed back immediately after they are received. In order to be counted, a mail ballot has to be returned and postmarked no later than Election Day (Nov. 3) and received by an election clerk no later than seven days after Election Day. 

AB4 includes a provision stating that if a mail ballot is received by no later than 5 p.m. on the third day after the election and the date of the postmark “cannot be determined”, the ballot will be counted and deemed to have been postmarked the day on or before the election. That provision was put in place during the 2019 Legislature.

The secretary of state’s office says ballots given to a mail carrier or deposited in a U.S. Post Office receptacle prior to the last posted pick-up time will result in that ballot being postmarked on the same day.

Can I use a drop-off box?

To avoid concerns about getting your ballot counted in time, election officials encourage voters to mail or turn in mail ballots before Election Day, or to turn in their ballots via a secure drop box location, which must occur prior to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Every county in the state is required to have at least one drop-off location; a full list will be available on the secretary of state’s website, and a preliminary list of drop-boxes has already been published for Clark County.

How do I know that I’m an “active” voter, and what does that mean?

Unlike in the 2020 primary election, when active and inactive Clark County voters received a mail ballot, the 2020 general election will only see active voters in the state receive a mail ballot.

So what exactly is an inactive voter?

Both active and inactive voters are registered voters and allowed to cast ballots during elections. A voter is marked as “inactive” once election mail sent to their on-file address is marked as undeliverable, and a separate forwardable postcard asking the voter to update the address has not been returned within 30 days.

Inactive voters are still allowed to cast a ballot as long as they meet all other legal requirements for voting. Once placed on the “inactive” voter roll, the individual’s voter registration is canceled if the voter does not vote in the next two federal elections or shows no other voter activity during that time.

Of Nevada’s nearly 1.9 million registered voters, more than 250,000 are considered “inactive.”

As for active voters, Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley says that designation is somewhat of a misnomer — it refers to the group of voters who have a confirmed address on file with election officials. It has nothing to do with how often a person votes.

If you’ve recently moved or not voted in awhile, but registered to vote in the past, the secretary of state’s office recommends checking your voter registration status at www.registertovotenv.gov to ensure that your address and other information is correct and up-to-date.

How do I know if my ballot was received?

While voters can mail or turn in their mail ballot any time after receiving it before Election Day, the election law changes in AB4 only allow for election officials to start processing ballots 15 days before Election Day (previously law allowed for ballot processing to begin four working days before the election.)

Voters can also see whether their ballot has been successfully received through the online portal maintained by the secretary of state’s office or registrars in Clark and Washoe counties. 

In late September, the secretary of state's office announced a partnership with a ballot tracking service, BallotTrax, that gives voters alerts about the status of their ballot by text, email, or phone calls.

You can sign up for their service through their website, at nevada.ballottrax.net.

What if there’s an issue with my mail-in ballot? 

County election officials are required to reach out to voters if there are any issues with their signature or mail ballot in order to offer them a chance to correct the issue.

But first, it’s worth noting how the changes in AB4 affect the signature verification process.

The law requires the county clerk or election office employee to check the signature on the ballot with all other signatures on record. If at least two employees in the office believe there is a “a reasonable question of fact” as to whether the signatures match, the office will contact the voter and ask for confirmation of the signature on the ballot.

The law also defines what a “reasonable question of fact” entails: any differences between the signatures that differ in “multiple, significant and obvious respects” from other signatures of the voter on record, excluding any use of initials, nicknames or “slight dissimilarities” between the signatures.

If a clerk or county election office determines that there is an issue with the signature (or no signature was included) on the ballot, but the voter is otherwise entitled to cast a ballot, they’re required to reach out to the voter and offer an opportunity to correct the issue(s) and cast a ballot. For a mail ballot to be counted, the voter needs to turn in a valid signature no later than 5 p.m. on the ninth day following the election.

Can I give my ballot to someone else to turn in?

Starting with this election, yes. AB4 now allows any voter to authorize another person to turn in their mail ballot for them, a practice known as ballot collection (also called “ballot harvesting” by opponents of the concept).

If a ballot is given to another person to turn in to election officials, the collector is required to turn in the collected ballot within three days of receiving it, or by Election Day. They’re also prohibited from changing, modifying or destroying an accepted absentee ballot given to them by another voter. Failure to do so is punishable as a felony.

This change will remain in place even outside of “affected” elections, meaning it will be in place once the governor’s state of emergency order expires. Nevada law previously only allows family members to turn in absentee ballots for another person, making it a felony to do so for anyone else.

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske is requesting emergency regulations that would allow her office to keep closer tabs on anyone turning in more than 10 ballots for other voters. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office has denied that request.

Can I help someone else fill out a ballot?

Under AB4, voters who have a physical disability, are over the age of 65 or are unable to read or write can designate another person to help mark and sign a mail ballot. 

Any person who fills out or signs a ballot on behalf of another voter in the above-mentioned categories needs to indicate next to the signature that they assisted in filling out the ballot, and include a written statement including name, address and signature.

Can I still vote in person if I want?

Yes. Every county in the state is required to have at least one in-person polling place operating on Election Day. A full list of dates and times will be posted on the secretary of state’s website here once counties finalize their plans.

AB4 also requires minimum numbers of in-person polling places to be open in Clark and Washoe counties on Election Day. Clark County is required to have at least 100 vote centers open; Washoe is required to have at least 25 sites open.

What about early voting? Is that still happening?

Also yes. As with the requirements for a minimum number of polling places on Election Day, AB4 requires Clark County to have a minimum of 35 in-person early voting sites, and requires 15 sites in Washoe County. All other counties are required to have at least one in-person early voting site available during the two-week early voting period, which runs from Oct. 17 to Oct. 30.

A list of early voting sites in Clark County can be found here

Wait, so what do I do with my mail ballot if I want to vote in-person?

In order to vote in person, voters who received a mail ballot will need to take the physical ballot with them to the polling place and turn it into election officials before casting a vote in-person. If you forget to bring it or don’t have your mail ballot, you’ll have to sign an affirmation declaring that you are not voting twice in the election.

Election officials also will check when a voter checks in at a polling place to see whether they have previously received a ballot from that person. That’s intended to catch situations in which a person attempts to vote in-person more than once, or mails in a ballot and then tries to cast a ballot in-person later.

It’s a felony crime in Nevada for a voter to attempt to vote more than once during the same election. 

I forgot to register before the deadline to receive a mail ballot. Can I still vote?

Yes. Under a law passed by the 2019 Legislature, Nevada now allows for same-day voter registration, meaning a person can show up to a polling place, register to vote and then cast a ballot all on the same day. This is not a change just for the 2020 election; it’s in place for all future elections.

The close of voter registration for the general election is Oct. 6 if a voter plans to register to vote by mail, or Oct. 29 if you register to vote online. 

If you register to vote online after Oct. 6, but before Oct. 15, you will be able to cast a regular ballot in person on Election Day or during early voting, or vote by using a mail ballot. 

If you miss the Oct. 15 deadline, you can still register to vote, but you’ll have to show up in person. Voters who register after the deadline or physically at a polling place will have to cast a ballot in-person, and will cast provisional ballots.

For the voter, provisional ballots look just like a regular ballot with all listed contests, candidates and questions. However, provisional ballots are not counted until election officials are able to verify the voter was qualified to vote in the election, did not vote more than once, and was able to (if necessary) provide additional proof of residency.

If you’re headed to vote in-person and are not already registered to vote, election officials require you to bring your current, unexpired Nevada driver’s licenses, a state ID card or a current DMV temporary document. If the addresses on a DMV item don’t match your actual address, you’ll need to bring in additional proof of residency such a utility bill, bank or credit union statements, an income tax return or property tax statement, or any other document issued by a government agency.

Are these changes permanent?

Some of them, yes. Provisions involving the minimum number of polling places and the expanded mail voting are only triggered during what’s called “affected” elections, or elections conducted during a legislative or governor-declared state of emergency. Nevada remains under the state of emergency initially called by Gov. Steve Sisolak in March, meaning the provisions as of now only apply to the 2020 general election.

Other provisions, including the ballot collection provisions, are permanent and will remain in effect for future elections.

Updated on Aug. 25, 2020 at 3:48 p.m. to include additional information and correct several answers. Updated again on Aug. 26 at 9:01 a.m. to include additional information about election changes. Updated on Sept. 23, 2020 at 4:09 p.m. to include information about a ballot tracking service for Nevada voters

Automatic voter registration numbers ‘fell off a cliff’ following DMV closures

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

When the pandemic forced the DMV to close in-person services and waive deadlines, license renewals slowed, vehicle registrations lapsed and voter registration numbers plummeted as people largely stopped interacting with the DMV.

Even with the ability to conduct online DMV transactions that trigger an update to a person’s voting information, automatic voter registrations dropped in late March, slowing down to a trickle in April and May. Officials expect transactions to increase now that physical DMV offices reopened on June 15 albeit with a limited capacity, according to a progress report sent to lawmakers on the Interim Finance Committee on the implementation of automatic voter registration.

“While the DMV was closed for those two and a half months or so, the only registrations that we are getting from the DMV was through online license renewals or other online transactions,” Wayne Thorley, the deputy secretary of state for elections, told The Nevada Independent in an interview on Aug. 4. “So it really, really dropped off ... it was about 10 percent of what it was in January, February. So it pretty much fell off a cliff.”

Automatic voter registration took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, updating voter records when a DMV driver's license or identification card transaction occurs, unless someone opts out. Approved by the Legislature, and then by voters in 2018, automatic voter registration is expected to capture large numbers of people who had not registered through other means. The automatic process also helps keep voter records more current than requiring voters to file separate forms with county offices. 2020 is the first election cycle in which the new policy is in play. 

Analyses of automatic voter registration data show a roughly 81 percent decrease in the number of DMV records processed from January to May, and a 90 percent drop in voter registrations within the same timeframe.

Totals from January through May show that about 35 percent of the DMV records counties processed resulted in new voter registrations, and out of the new voters, 65 percent defaulted to non-partisan because a party was not indicated or properly selected.

Despite an expectation that the number of DMV transactions will increase now that the DMV is reopened for in-person visits, officials say that the volume of voter registrations will still be less than during the first quarter because of limitations imposed by COVID-19 prevention procedures.

The progress report noted that even though processing time for each DMV transaction has dropped, overall processing time has increased because of a tripling of the number of applications and additional time required to work with registrations defaulting to non-partisan.

The secretary of state’s office is continuing to work with counties navigating the challenges COVID-19 presents, and Thorley said that transactions with the DMV are almost inevitable for many Nevadans so automatic voter registration offers more opportunities for updating records.

“But certainly, voters move a lot, so the more indication that we get from them and information that they move that we can use to update their address, the more accurate our list will be,” Thorley said.

This story was updated at 12:00 p.m. on August 25, 2020 to clarify that automatic voter registration occurs when a DMV driver's license or identification card transaction takes place.

Secretary of State seeks regulation on newly allowed ‘ballot harvesting’ practice, wants collectors to report to her office

Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske is asking for an emergency regulation to keep closer tabs on who is “ballot harvesting” after a recently passed state law cleared the way for the practice.

Cegavske, who opposed a provision passed this month through AB4 that allows non-family members to turn ballots in on behalf of other voters, criticized the Legislature in a statement Monday for not taking a more “measured” approach to changing ballot collection rules. Her proposed regulation calls for people to report to her office if they turn in 10 or more ballots for other voters.

“In approving Assembly Bill 4, the Legislature gave in to partisan interests and gutted an enduring state law that served to protect the integrity of elections,” her office said in a statement. “Before Assembly Bill 4, engaging in ballot harvesting was punishable as a felony. The severity of the punishment associated with the act of ballot harvesting reflected the Legislature’s longstanding recognition of the threat associated with allowing third parties to handle ballots on behalf of voters.” 

The proposed regulations would need to be approved by Gov. Steve Sisolak in order to take effect. A spokeswoman for the governor said the office had received the request and "as with all other requests, this will be reviewed by the office."

The regulations would apply to any “ballot harvester” who returns 10 or more completed ballots by mail or personal delivery to county or local election clerks. They would require such people to submit a written statement including the names and residential addresses of all voters whose ballots they turn in. 

The written statement also would have to include the physical address of where the collected ballots were returned, and the name of any corporate, political or advocacy entity with which the “ballot harvester” is “employed or otherwise associated with if the ballot return assistance is made in conjunction with such association.”

Such statements would need to be returned to the secretary of state’s office no later than 5 p.m. on the seventh day following the election.

Wayne Thorley, Cegavske’s top deputy in charge of elections, raised concerns that political parties or others might go door to door pressuring or intimidating people to turn in ballots, especially as the state now plans to send mail-in ballots to all of the state’s approximately 1.6 million active registered voters. Other critics have said the practice could lead to more people coaxing residents of nursing homes into filling out ballots to support a certain candidate.

Advocates for election reform had initially pushed for loosening restrictions on ballot collection on behalf of tribal members who live in remote locations and wanted trusted people to turn in a ballot on their behalf.

The expanded vote collection provisions were approved by the Legislature in a special session earlier this month, as part of a wide-ranging bill also allowing for expanded mail-in voting as part of a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevada law previously only allowed family members to turn in another person’s ballot.

“As Secretary of State, I understand my role is to enforce the laws passed by the Legislature, and I will continue to perform my duty in this regard,” Cegavske said, acknowledging that it is not her role to create new laws.  “However, it is also my job to ensure elections are fair and that any illegal activity associated with an election can be detected and stopped.”

President Donald Trump has also strongly criticized the bill, with his campaign filing a federal lawsuit against the new law in early August seeking an immediate injunction against the new law. Ballot harvesting, however, was not among the legal complaints the suit made against the bill. 

Updated on Monday, Aug. 17, at 6:37 p.m. to include a quote from Gov. Steve Sisolak's office.

AUDIO STORY: Breaking down Assembly Bill 4 and how vote by mail will work come November

AB4 was signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak during the second special session of 2020. The bill aims to continue the process of holding a primarily mail-in election come November, this time by mailing ballots to all active registered voters and providing more polling locations in the two urban counties than existed in June for the primary election.

The bill has sparked some controversy both inside and outside the state as President Donald Trump has taken aim at Nevada since the bill's passage, calling the bill “a disgrace.” His campaign has sued the secretary of state over the measure. Former Attorney General Adam Laxalt and former congressman and Secretary of State Dean Heller also went on the record criticizing the bill, calling it corrupt and warning of fraud.

The Nevada Independent sat down to go over the ins and outs of AB4 and also talked with Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley to get a better understanding of what is in the bill and how it will affect the election.

You can also read our full interview with Thorley here.

Indy Q&A: Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley on what Nevada’s controversial elections bill does and doesn’t do

A bill passed by Nevada lawmakers during a special session that calls for mail-in ballots to be sent to all active registered voters when an election comes in the wake of a statewide emergency or disaster declaration has stirred a flurry of reaction, all the way up to President Donald Trump.

The bill AB4, which passed on party lines with Republicans opposed and was signed into law this week by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, will affect the forthcoming general election in which the presidential race is on the ballot. It comes on the heels of a mostly mail primary election in June that saw 30 percent turnout — high for a primary — and more than 98 percent of voters using the mail-in option.

The measure:

  • Calls for at least 35 in-person early voting sites, and at least 100 vote centers on Election Day in Clark County
  • Calls for at least 15 in-person early voting sites, and at least 25 vote centers on Election Day in Washoe County
  • Calls for at least one in-person early voting site, and at least one vote center on Election Day in other counties, and
  • Calls for ballots to be mailed to the approximately 1.6 million active registered Nevada voters, but not the approximately 300,000 additional registered voters who are considered “inactive”

The number of in-person vote centers in Clark County on Election Day in 2018 was about 175, and Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria expects the county will have 159 sites this November, well above the bill’s threshold. Washoe County had about 85 in-person polling places on Election Day 2018.

The bill also authorizes more people to return ballots on behalf of other people with their permission — a practice sometimes known as “ballot harvesting” that has raised concerns about pressure or fraud and was opposed by Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican. Certain provisions — but not the ballot harvesting issue — were cited in a Republican-backed lawsuit filed Tuesday.

To answer questions about what the bill will change about the forthcoming election, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley sat down with the IndyMatters podcast on Tuesday.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. For more, subscribe to our podcast and check out the next episode.

Wayne Thorley, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 at the Capitol in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Q: What does this bill change about ballot collection or ballot harvesting?

A: Any voter can authorize any other person to return their ballot on their behalf. It doesn't have to be a designated family member. It can be someone else that lives with them. Could be a care worker, it could even be a political party operative, a neighbor, anybody that they authorize. 

There's also provision in the bill that allows voters with disabilities, voters who are 65 years or older, or voters who cannot read and write to ask someone to assist them in marking and signing their ballot. If you do that, then you have to note on the ballot return envelope that you assisted somebody and then you also have to submit a written statement to the county letting them know that you assisted that voter too. But that's only on if you assist the voter with marking or signing their ballot. 

If all you do is assist the voter in returning their ballot, you don't you don't have to register or note that anywhere. 

Q: Do you have to fall into a special category of being a vulnerable person to have someone else turn in the ballot on your behalf? Can I have my friend turn in my ballot?

A: You could as long as you authorize [your friend] to do that.

Q: And there is a penalty in the law if my friend doesn't return my ballot for me?

A: If you give your ballot to someone else to return on your behalf, and it is more than three days before the election, that person has no more than three days to return the ballot for you. If you give it to someone to return on your behalf, and within three days of the deadline, the Election Day deadline to turn it ballots and they just have to turn it in before the deadline. If they fail to turn it in within that time frame, then there is a criminal penalty.

Q: The concern is people going maybe into nursing homes or just any sort of group setting, collecting everybody's ballots and maybe changing the vote for them or potentially discarding the ballots. Are there any safeguards that you guys will be taking to prevent that kind of activity?

A: So we're concerned about this. The secretary of state was opposed to this bill and this provision specifically in the bill. We think it's a step too far. If there were concerns about access to voting with the old restrictions, we were certainly happy to have a discussion about expanding the list of people eligible to return a ballot on behalf of the voter. But the blanket removing of that prohibition and allowing anybody to return a ballot on behalf of the voters is concerning to us. 

We think that it will increase voter intimidation. Some voters don't want to vote and that's their right. They may want to vote and return their ballot themselves. We think we'll see instances of people just going door to door and chasing ballots. That's what we've seen in other states. And there's even avenues for nefarious activity like we saw in North Carolina in 2018 where a (GOP) political operative was harvesting ballots and in some cases opening those ballots changing the votes that the voter had voted. So it's a concern, something we're going to keep an eye out for.

Q: Are you going to send out any messaging to voters and say ‘you really should be returning your ballot on your own’ or doing something to that effect?

A: I'm not sure at this point exactly what our messaging will look like. But we'll certainly do some voter education. I think an important component of that is encouraging all voters if they're able to return their ballot themselves. 

We do something similar with voter registration. So on the paper voter registration forms that we have, there's a state law that requires us to put a little warning on the form. And the warning says, ‘You are highly encouraged to return your voter registration application yourself and not leave it in the hands of a third party to be returned for you.’

And then it says if you give it to somebody else, and they don't turn it in, then you will not be registered to vote. So we already have that warning on our voter registration applications, encouraging voters to not leave those with other people. 

Wayne Thorley, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 at the Capitol in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Q: Who are you sending the ballots out to? Is it just everyone that is registered to vote in Nevada?

A: So for the general election, under the provisions of AB4, we will only be sending ballots to active registered voters. 

The term active registered voters is somewhat of a misnomer, because your designation as an active voter has nothing to do with how frequently you participate in elections. It has everything to do with whether you have a verifiable and verified address on file with us. 

So if we've sent you a mailer, and that mailer has been returned as undeliverable, that's when we start the inactivation process. But as long as your address is verified, even if you don't vote for 10 years, you'll still remain an active registered voter. I know it's confusing but it doesn't mean that you're a frequent voter. It just means that we have a confirmed address for you. So that's who we'll be sending the ballots to. 

For the general election, we will not be sending ballots to inactive registered voters. And, again, inactive doesn't mean you haven't voted recently. It simply means that we sent you a piece of election mail and that was returned as undeliverable. So we have a high level of confidence that you don't live there anymore.

Q: There was a really controversial decision in the June primary to send mail-in ballots to inactive voters in Clark County. This legislation just says active voters, but could Clark County or any other county really expand upon that and start sending them to inactive voters?

A: The law says that it gets sent to only active registered voters. I highly doubt any county would send it to inactive registered voters. 

We did not support that for the primary election, and simply because it was a waste of money. We've already sent something to inactive voters. That's why they're inactive. Something we've sent them has already gotten returned. So why would we send them a ballot?

Ballots are required to be sent via non-forwardable mail. So it can't be forwarded to their new address by the post office. So I'm glad the Legislature recognized that we should only be sent to active registered voters. 

Inactive registered voters, if they want to participate in the election and they can, they can update their address and get a ballot in the mail or they can go to one of the in-person polling places and update their address and vote there.

Q: Were there changes made for the general election to address problems we saw in the primary? Perhaps more in-person voting locations to address long lines?

A: Yeah, a lot more in person polling locations. That's something I want to talk about because I think there's been a lot of confusion about that. 

The long lines in Clark County, and to some extent Washoe County on Election Day in June, were cited by both sides in the AB4 discussion about either why AB4 was needed, or why we should oppose AB4. 

The lines really had nothing to do with voting by mail, and we were never, ever, ever planning on having that few polling locations for the general election. We were never, ever going to do that. That was a one-time kind of emergency thing while we were on quarantine. 

There was no chance of getting poll workers to staff a normal amount of polling locations. Most of our partners that we work with in the community, whether it's our private sector partners or public sector partners to host us for polling locations, they could not guarantee that it'd be available. 

We have a lot more certainty now. Obviously, the pandemic is still going on. But there's a lot more certainty now about availability of locations and poll workers. So the long lines, this bill was not needed to address that. We were going to take care of that ourselves.

And it was mostly a throughput problem. So if you look at the number of voters that voted in person in Clark County, and assume that they were roughly equally spread out amongst the three locations, it was not a number of voters that would overwhelm a polling place on a normal Election Day.

It was the process that really really slowed it down. And that process was the reissuing of ballots. So we didn't use the touchscreen voting machines. You vote much quicker on a touchscreen voting machine than you do on a hand-marked paper ballot. The Clark County ballot was extremely long with all the judges on the ballot. 

But the biggest bottleneck was the canceling. So everyone was sent a ballot. So every voter that showed up, unless they were there for same day registration, but most voters that were there were not there for same day registration, they had already been issued a ballot —  we had to cancel their ballot out in the system. 

We had to print them a new ballot on what's called a ballot-on-demand printer. That's a specialty printer that prints off ballots, and then we had to reissue it in the system. And all that took time, much more time than it normally does to check in a voter and have them vote. So it was entirely a throughput problem, and not a too-many-voters-in-one-polling-location problem. 

I get it. It was not an ideal situation, totally unacceptable, and we won't see that situation for the general election.

Q: Do you anticipate that it's going to be difficult with this many polling places? Potentially, if people have already voted by mail and maybe forgot they did, or maybe intentionally come to the polling place, and you have to check whether they have signed in before or if their ballot has been received?

A: So we always do that. Whenever a voter presents at the polling place to vote, we always look them up in the system to make sure that they are eligible to vote. And part of that eligibility check is to make sure they haven't already participated in the election. 

It happens from time to time, usually with elderly voters, where they'll vote by mail ballot or an absentee ballot. And then someone in their family will go, ‘Hey, grandma … we're going to go out, vote together as a family’ and take them to the polling place, and they'll check in and we'll see that you've already voted. 

So we've got procedures and checks in place to look for that. It's possible that might happen more this election because every voter will be sent a mail ballot. But I'm not concerned about that overwhelming us. We've got like systems in place to check for that

Q: The Secretary of State did say during the Assembly's hearing on this bill that there were no instances of fraud that had been reported to your office. But we've also reported about the thousands of signatures that were mismatched, some that were cured. But there were close to 7,000 ballots returned in which the voter never followed up to cure their signature, and I guess that goes down as a mismatch in the ballot is not counted. Do you suspect there's a lot of fraud in there?

A: I don't know. You're right, ultimately that ballot's not counted. But whether the voter just ignored our cure letter, or didn't know how to follow through with the cure process, or if it actually was an instance of someone attempting to fraudulently cast a ballot, I don't know. 

In the signature cure process, the letter that we send you, and whether you're curing by the analog paper version or you're using our online signature cure program, there is an option for you to say 'No, I did not vote this ballot.’

And, to my knowledge, nobody submitted a cure that way. But the ones that were just left unresponded to — I can't speculate as to whether those were fraudulent or just voters not following through. 

Q: So if someone takes the ballots out of the mail and votes for people, you guys would have that option to let the voter report that through the signature cure process?

A: Yeah. The risk of somebody finding a discarded ballot or obtaining a ballot that wasn't theirs, and then voting it, is relatively low. I know it concerns a lot of people when they hear stories about just discarded ballots on the ground, but that in and of itself is not evidence of fraud. 

The person would have to mark that ballot and then sign it and return it and their signature would have to match the voter signature in order for it to be counted. If it didn't match, then we go through the cure process. So there are safeguards in place to protect against that, to make sure that voters aren't obtaining a ballot that's not theirs, and then voting it.

Q: Sen. James Settelmeyer asked on the Senate floor how we can know there’s not fraud if there’s a part-time investigator on the task, and the state can call in a few more people, but they are working on other projects. There isn’t a large group working to proactively ferret out fraud. What is your response to that? 

A: I think both sides have it wrong here. We have seen no evidence at all to support the thesis that there is widespread, coordinated massive fraud in the election system. It's also inaccurate to say that there is zero or no fraud in the election system. It happens. It happens on a small scale, and it is almost always the result of either mistakes or a person acting by themselves. It's not a coordinated effort or conspiracy to commit fraud. 

Certainly, we would appreciate more resources from the Legislature to be more proactive in looking at some of the allegations that come in. We rely heavily on the public reporting to us things that they find that are suspicious. A lot of those things that are reported to us either aren't violations or they don't kind of pan out, but sometimes they do. And so I wouldn't say no to more resources.

Q: When the secretary of state said that there were no reported instances of fraud in the June primary, are we talking about there was no reports coming in whatsoever, or there's nothing that you guys have proven or been able to substantiate?

A: Nothing proven. There's always allegations out there of fraud, but ...  I've seen no evidence to support that there was some fraud in the primary election.

Wayne Thorley, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 at the Capitol in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Q: The cost of this came up a couple times. We're going to be mailing people ballots, but maybe we have fewer in-person locations. How does it all pencil out? Is this election going to be more expensive than it would be if it was conducted in a more traditional manner?

A: It will be more expensive. The cost was one of the main reasons a secretary of state was opposed to the bill. 

A good example is the primary election. So we printed and mailed out a little bit over 1.8 million ballots, about 480,000 of those were returned. So well over a million ballots were printed and not used. And I'm not saying that indicates that there was some sort of fraud — just those voters just chose not to vote, which is fine. But it was also an expense, sending all those to voters who ultimately chose not to vote for the general election.

The secretary's plan was: if you want to vote by mail, simply request a ballot, we can make sure we were sending a ballot to somebody who had already indicated, I want to vote by mail, so that we weren't wasting resources on that. 

Q: Are we saving any money, though, by having fewer in-person locations? 

A: We will end up with fewer in-person polling locations than you would see in a normal non-pandemic election. How much fewer? It won't be a massive amount, a huge decrease, but it'll be a little bit fewer. So there will be some cost savings there but not much.

One of the one of the concerns with this bill is it requires us to basically be ready to roll out two types of voting at any time — an in-person voting and mailing everybody a ballot. That's expensive. And we have to have equipment to do that.

Most of the equipment we have is geared towards heavy in-person voting, and not a lot of the back-end scanning and tabulation equipment that you use for voting by mail. We of course, leased a lot of that equipment for the primary election, but we released it and returned it. So we're gonna have to get it back. 

So there's a cost to basically maintaining two separate voting systems ... and to have it ready anytime there's a declared state of emergency for any reason, by a certain date, that triggers the provisions of this bill.

Q: One of the concerns has been the Postal Service and are they equipped to handle a transition to a mail-in election? Did you hear any complaints from the Postal Service or real issues and delays related to the mail?

A: No, the Postal Service was a great partner for the primary election. We had lots of conversations with the post office in the lead up to the primary election from national representatives back in D.C. to our local election mail coordinators and our local mail carriers. They were a great partner and we anticipate continuing that relationship with them.

Q: There's been some statements out there that say you can vote three days after the election, or that you can vote seven days after the election. Can you bring us clarity on that?

A: You cannot do that. So, if you want to vote by mail — and when I say vote by mail, I mean, just vote your paper ballot, not necessarily turn it by mail — you've got two options. You can drop it off in person at one of the drop boxes by the close of polls, or you have to get it postmarked by Election Day. 

Even though we're allowed to receive ballots up to seven days afterwards, all those ballots will have been voted before the close of polls on Election Day. So it's not a case where you could wait and see like the preliminary election results that we published and see like, ‘Oh, this candidate's ahead or this candidate's losing,’ and then adjust your voting accordingly. You can't do that. 

And that's important. We don't want that to happen. It's the reason why we don't release election results until the last person's voted. We do not want to influence somebody's vote in any way.