Updated May 29, 2020 - 9:13 pm
The group behind a ballot petition that would create an independent commission to redraw state legislative districts will have extra time to gather the needed signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot after a judge ruled that not granting an extension amid the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing shutdowns would be unconstitutional.
Fair Maps Nevada, a political action committee supported by the state League of Women Voters, filed for a preliminary injunction earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Reno after the secretary of state’s office refused to grant the group an extension to gather the signatures.
U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du wrote in her decision, which came down Friday, that the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak to help blunt the spread of COVID-19 in Nevada effectively barred Fair Maps from gathering signatures while it was in effect, making it “both unreasonable and unfair not to extend a statutory deadline for a corresponding period of time.”
Given the shutdown, the secretary of state’s decision not to grant an extension of time violated the group’s First Amendment rights, Du said.
“If there is any time where business as usual is impossible, this is it,” Du added.
The group initially had until June 24 to gather the nearly 98,000 signatures and noted that it had gathered roughly 10,000 signatures in the first two months, which Du said showed substantial support.
Under Du’s order the new deadline to submit the signatures reverts to the constitutional deadline, which is 90 days from the date of the general election, or Aug. 5.
Du noted that the two sides also could come to a reasonable agreement on a new deadline, but said that if it were up to her, “an extension corresponding to the precise length of time the Stay at Home order was in effect seems the most reasonable.”
Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters, said in a statement that the judge “recognized that our right to engage in direct democracy is protected both by Nevada’s Constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
But Du did not grant the group’s other request, which asked for the ability to gather signatures electronically.
Du cited the Purcell principle, which arose from a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case out of Arizona that emphasizes lower courts should not intervene in election rules on the eve of an election.
Du also noted that the in-person gathering requirements make clear the intent to prevent fraud to ensure people are signing it in person and that there does not appear to be those same protections in allowing for electronic signatures.
Cosgrove disagreed with Du’s assessment, saying in her statement that they had planned to ask the secretary of state’s office to allow them to use the online voter registration system that allows Nevada voters to affix their DMV signatures to voter registration forms.
Moving forward, Cosgrove said the group will contract with a vendor to help them gather signatures via door-to-door visits and with large events in each district.
But she said she regrets that some may not do so over fears of the coronavirus.
“These high-risk groups include people of color, the elderly, individuals with chronic diseases, voters who are immunocompromised, many voters with disabilities, and the family members of these high risk groups who are trying their best to keep their loved one’s safe and healthy,” Cosgrove said.
“While we are thankful these groups’ right to vote in the primary was protected, we wish these Nevadans’ right to sign our petition could be afforded the same consideration and protection.”