Updated May 19, 2020 - 7:08 pm
Thousands of Nevadans began voting last week in the state’s first all-mail primary election, as concerns over the spread of COVID-19 have closed traditional polls throughout the country.
As of Monday afternoon, Clark County had received 69,238 ballots, with 33,118 from Democrats and 24,451 from Republicans.
Nevada and its counties had planned an all-mail election for some time. But Clark County is the only county to adjust its plans after legal pressure from state Democrats, who pushed for ballots to be sent to inactive voters and to add two more in-person voting locations on Election Day, June 9.
The first week of voting saw the state GOP raise the alarm on ballots for the county’s 200,000 inactive voters being mailed to the wrong addresses, with photos of ballots tossed in trash cans and littering apartment mailbox areas. If state Democrats get their way and relax signature matching, the GOP claims, then voter fraud will be simple.
But groups working hard to help traditionally disenfranchised populations, such as immigrant communities, vote during a pandemic that’s likely to depress turnout say that giving voters multiple ways to participate is critical. Low-income voters are more likely to move around a lot and be classified as inactive, but their votes should count, advocates say. Thousands of inactive voters — those who are verified as eligible voters, but who have had an election mailer returned as undeliverable — can and do vote every cycle.
James Murphy went to check his mail May 8 at the Allanza at the Lakes apartment complex. He was shocked to find about a dozen ballots pinned to the complex’s bulletin board or otherwise thrown around. He would find even more in trash cans over the weekend.
“From Friday to Monday, I could have voted 20 times,” Murphy said. “That’s what’s so concerning about all this.”
(Under state law, voting or trying to vote more than once in the same election is a felony, punishable by one to four years in state prison and a fine of up to $5,000.)
Jason Tyree saw something similar at Mesa Verde Apartments, where ballots were sticking out of residents’ mailboxes and “at least a dozen” were sitting in garbage cans.
Murphy and Tyree photographed what they saw and sent it into the state GOP, which began collecting testimonials on its website.
Jenny Trobiani, a 36-year veteran carrier with the U.S. Postal Service, said she had never seen anything like the influx of absentee ballots that were “no good.”
“(The recipients) had all moved or died,” she said.
She kept 65 of these ballots with her on her first delivery day after they began to flood in from the county, and more than 100 on the second. In all, she said, there were thousands sitting in crates with no additional safeguards and marked to be sent back to the county from the 89104 ZIP code.
Trobiani said she also received a ballot at her home address for her deceased mother.
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, national Republican leadership railed against what was happening in Clark County.
“That obviously leaves room for fraud,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said.
The national Republican group has intervened in a lawsuit filed by groups including the Nevada Democratic Party against the state, claiming that the lawsuit’s demands of mailing hundreds of thousands of inactive voter ballots, suspension of the state’s ban on vote harvesting and relaxing signature requirements would compromise election security.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Joseph Gloria stressed last week that the county was still verifying signatures. In fact, it strengthened its verification process with the introduction of new software, he said. Gloria also noted in a virtual town hall meeting Thursday that his office accepts reports of illegal voting, as it has in the past.
Proven cases of fraud through vote harvesting or absentee voting are exceedingly rare nationwide.
Still, the Republicans say they will soon ask Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office to investigate the photos and claims of improperly handled ballots, Republican National Committee chief counsel Justin Riemer said Monday.
For groups assisting Nevada’s diverse and low-income communities with their ballots in a time of unprecedented crisis, however, mailing these additional ballots and opening more in-person voting centers is essential.
Emily Zamora is executive director of Silver State Voices, which works with 16 other organizations across the state to educate voters and ensure safe, inclusive voting practices.
The coalition has been working to inform voters about the vote-by-mail process while also attempting to persuade other counties to follow Clark’s lead in sending more ballots out and opening more in-person locations on Election Day.
Sending ballots to people labeled inactive is important, she said, because 1 in 5 Nevadans moves in a typical year. With massive job loss and economic uncertainty wrought by COVID-19, that number is probably quite higher in 2020, so more voters may have been marked inactive due to not receiving address-check mailers from the state or county. Low-income communities have been hit particularly hard.
Zamora said partner organizations such as the Asian Community Development Council and Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada are making calls to the hundreds of thousands of inactive voters and asking them to update their information with the secretary of state.
Other groups distrust absentee voting, which is where the additional locations come in.
“Unfortunately, for a lot of people, putting a ballot in a mailbox brings uncertainty,” she said. “They wonder, ‘Is someone going to mess with it?’ Some native communities have to share mailboxes, for example, so they may not be as comfortable voting by mail.”
LaLo Montoya, political director for Make the Road Nevada, said immigrant families are still being evicted despite a statewide moratorium against the practice. Landlords are using tenants’ legal status to force them out of their homes during the pandemic.
As many families are mixed-status, meaning some members are citizens and others aren’t, those evicted who can legally vote may not receive their ballot, active or not.
Montoya said sending ballots to everyone, as well as opening up more in-person locations with same-day registration, can allow people multiple shots at participating. And participation is key to ensuring immigrant communities are no longer left out of huge portions of the pandemic relief coming out of the government, he added.
“This is an economic and health crisis, and voters want to see what their representatives are doing about it,” Montoya said. “It’s critical folks have a way of expressing how they feel through their votes.”