Updated May 7, 2020 - 1:45 pm
RENO — The group behind a ballot petition for an independent commission to redraw Nevada legislative districts says COVID-19 restrictions have made traditional signature gathering impossible, and it has asked a federal judge for more time to collect signatures and permission to gather them electronically.
Fair Maps Nevada, a political action committee supported by state League of Women Voters, filed for a preliminary injunction Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Reno after failing to get the secretary of state’s office to approve the changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic “has resulted in the near total cessation of public activity in Nevada,” and state directives on staying at home and social distancing to curb the outbreak “make it extremely difficult to collect signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot in a traditional in-person manner,” lawyers for the group say in the filing.
“Any attempt to gather signatures would subject petition circulators and the general public to a health risk, and expose circulators to potential criminal and civil liability,” the filing states.
To avoid potential political interference, Fair Maps wants an independent commission to redraw the state’s legislative districts following the once-a-decade U.S. census. The group’s initiative is the subject of another legal proceeding now pending in state Supreme Court.
This year, petitions for the November ballot must be submitted by June 24, the 15th day following the state’s June primary. To qualify, the group needs to gather nearly 98,000 signatures divided equally across the state’s four Congressional districts.
In its filing, the group cites the wide use of electronic signatures “in other contexts, including, court filings, business license filings, and corporate filings.” It notes that the secretary of state ordered the June primary to be conducted by mail only and additionally suspended in-person office transactions, both in response to the outbreak.
Fair Maps asked the Secretary of State’s office for permission to gather electronic signatures and to extend the deadline for six weeks, contending that the extension still allowed enough time for signature verification and ballot preparation. The office declined.
Gov. Steve Sisolak has indicated the state will begin to lift some social distancing directives by May 15. But even if they were all lifted immediately, Fair Maps says it won’t have enough time to meet the deadline.
The matter is before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Miranda Du. Fair Maps notes that the judge only last week ruled that the secretary of state has broad authority under state law to determine how state elections are carried out.