Updated August 4, 2020 - 11:50 pm
Changes to Nevada elections laws made by the Democratically controlled Legislature have once again thrust the state to the forefront of a nationwide debate over voting by mail, sparking angry tweets from the president and threats of lawsuits.
Assembly Bill 4, which passed on party-line votes in both houses, includes enhanced vote-by-mail provisions and allows the collection of ballots by people who are not related to the voter, commonly referred to as ballot harvesting. The new rules only apply during emergencies declared by the governor, such as the current coronavirus pandemic.
Political parties have recently exchanged lawsuits over similar election changes in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Texas and others. President Donald Trump and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pledged to bring a similar challenge against Nevada, while Gov. Steve Sisolak, state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson criticized Republican statements as attempts to suppress the vote.
Local Republicans accuse legislative Democrats of ramming through long-desired election changes under the guise of disaster relief in a partisan, late-night special session, while Democrats have maintained they’ve increased voter options — without taking away any existing choices — during uncertain times stemming from a worldwide pandemic.
Meanwhile, officials entrusted with carrying out the Nov. 3 general election report no major problems with the changes, saying Nevadans will have access to a safe election with timely, accurate results.
Some campaigns, advocates and other political players who’ve prepared for months for an election with a now-different set of rules are mostly sticking to their battle plans with fewer than 100 days to go.
Parties hold steady
In a Monday tweet, the president accused Sisolak of staging an “illegal late-night coup” and “using COVID to steal an election” with AB4.
“Nevada’s clubhouse Governor made it impossible for Republicans to win the state,” Trump said.
Those under Trump, both on the White House and campaign side, pushed harder on the specifics of the bill on Monday night and into Tuesday morning.
McDaniel penned a 10-part Twitter thread Monday night that attacked the safety and integrity of voting by mail and “let strangers pick up ballots for anyone.”
During her Tuesday morning media briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany cited a May Review-Journal story that showed pictures of a few dozen ballots in trash cans and strewn about apartment mailbox areas.
It is unclear if a similar scenario will play out in November, however, as ballots will only be mailed to active voters. Facing pressure from a Democratic lawsuit, Clark County took the unusual step of mailing ballots to some 200,000 inactive voters for the primary election — most of which were returned as undeliverable mail.
Keith Schipper, Trump’s Nevada spokesman, said voters are angry about the election changes and how they occurred. A small protest sprouted in Carson City on Sunday, with more planned throughout the state on Tuesday.
“This should infuriate everyone,” Schipper said. “Things that were bipartisan when first voted on, such as ballot harvesting being illegal, were changed by a bill that was 100 pages long, dropped in the middle of the night without feedback from (Secretary of State Barbara) Cegavske and given to Republican legislators with an hour’s notice.”
Schipper said Trump’s campaign will continue to encourage voter turnout and share the president’s accomplishments. He declined to share specifics on voter outreach, including whether Republicans plan to take advantage of newly legal ballot harvesting.
The Nevada State Democratic Party’s actual and spiritual leaders, Chairman William McCurdy II (also an assemblyman) and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, released similar statements on Monday rebuking Trump and praising the Legislature.
“Donald J. Trump has no integrity and no scruples,” Reid said. “That’s why he’s lying about our state leaders and threatening a bogus lawsuit simply because Democrats made it easier for people to vote.”
Top Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who sued Nevada on behalf of the party in an April attempt to secure more polling places and weaken restrictions on vote-by-mail and has intervened against conservative attacks on the state’s absentee ballot provisions, pledged to once again battle Republicans in court should they sue.
“We know Republicans worry at the sign of increased participation because the odds of them winning are weakened as more people vote,” Nevada State Democratic Party spokeswoman Molly Forgey said. “They have pushed voter suppression efforts, and we won’t be intimidated by the threat of litigation.”
In 2018, Democrats saw huge congressional gains in states like California as they further embraced voting by mail, thus contributing to the general idea that increased absentee participation favors Democrats.
However, Nevada’s other neighbor, Utah, has long favored vote-by-mail, sending ballots to all active voters while remaining heavily Republican.
The Joe Biden for president campaign declined to comment on AB4.
Campaign work on the ground in Nevada will remain largely the same despite the changes, Forgey said, though the focus will shift some from helping voters request absentee ballots to ensuring voters are actively registered and aware of their options.
Washoe, Clark counties not worried
The election officials tasked with running elections in the two counties where most of Nevada’s voters live expressed little concern over the changes.
Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula said her office had prepared for the possibility of increased voting by mail and had contact with both the Legislature and governor’s office prior to AB4’s passage.
“We’ve been planning for this bill, and we had a good idea of what we’d be asked to do,” Spikula said.
The registrar said scouting of polling places was already well underway, and she recently purchased two additional ballot scanners in anticipation of more absentee ballots coming in.
She noted the bill also gives registrars an additional 11 days, for a total of 15 days before the election, to scan ballots as they are returned.
McDaniel and other Republicans have routinely criticized vote-by-mail due to possible result delays, noting several congressional primaries remain unresolved due to problems in New York.
But Spikula stressed that election results will be released at the usual time, with the final canvass slated for Nov. 16 as planned.
Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said the state’s largest county will also meet those results deadlines. The public will receive unofficial results on election night that will be updated and finalized by the Nov. 16 deadline.
The county also plans to open 35 early voting locations and more than 150 polling places on Election Day.
Among the first Nevadans to join in Trump’s criticism of AB4 was Dan Rodimer, the Republican running for the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
“Democrats represent just fewer than 40 percent of registered voters in this state, yet they are forcing these changes on the 60 percent who choose not to affiliate with them,” he said in a statement Sunday.
Rodimer encouraged voters to flood Sisolak and legislators with complaints over the new bill, and he also stressed the importance of getting out the Republican vote to assist Trump in November.
In a statement, incumbent Rep. Susie Lee backed the new legislation: “The right to vote, and vote safely, should not be a partisan issue. I am proud that Nevada is taking data and reality-driven steps to protect our sacred right during this crisis.”
Andy Matthews, a Republican challenging Assemblywoman Shea Backus in the competitive 37th District, called the new legislation a “partisan power grab” and an “affront to the majority of voters who didn’t want this.”
He said his strategy won’t change much with the new rules, but he does plan to make the legislation into a campaign issue for Backus, who supported the bill, in November.
“There’s no question my opponent has been a rubber stamp for this party’s hyper partisan agenda,” he said of Backus, who won election in 2018 by fewer than 200 votes.
Backus said it was Trump, not the Legislature, who turned Nevada’s elections into a partisan issue by criticizing the all-mail primary election plan put forward by Cegavske and county election officials in May. (Cegavske’s office declined to comment for this story, but she said during testimony on AB4 that there were no known instances of fraud in the primary election.)
“On any other day, this would not be partisan,” Backus said. “It became that way when our Republican secretary of state mailed out ballots to everyone in the primary, and Trump didn’t like that.”
Backus said she’s been disappointed by the arguments in the aftermath of AB4’s passage, as most legislation passed in Nevada is done so with bipartisan support.
But she also pushed back against what she called “misinformation as messaging,” saying she’s having to correct constituents who falsely believe AB4 banned in-person voting.
Emily Zamora, executive director of progressive-leaning Silver State Voices and voice of the Let Nevadans Vote coalition of some 15 voter rights groups that worked with legislators on AB4, took criticism of Republican messaging a step further.
“We think (the misinformation) is disgusting,” she said. “This is not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about every voter having access to the ballot box. Creating a false narrative about what this bill does is, in our eyes, voter suppression in itself.”