Nevada has broadly expanded access to voting in recent years, restoring rights for individuals convicted of a felony, establishing universal access to mail-in ballots and increasing the number of polling places and drop boxes.
It happened after Democrats won control of both the state legislature and governor’s office, but also under the watch of Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.
Nevada is still widely considered as a swing state. If Republicans win the office that oversees election administration this year, things could change.
Cegavske, censured by the Nevada Republican Party Central Committee for not signing on to former President Donald Trump’s false conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 election, is prohibited by term limits from running again. Jim Marchant, the man Republicans nominated to succeed her, is a prominent supporter of Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and was on a slate of “alternate electors” Trump allies put forward to throw the election to him despite no proof that he won the vote in Nevada or nationwide.
When state government was divided in 2017, then-Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a bill that would have established automatic voter registration at the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Supporters went directly to voters and passed it via statewide referendum the following year.
After the election of Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2019, Nevada became one of three states the Brennan Center for Justice said was “responsible for an outsize portion of the most impactful and expansive voting laws enacted that year.” The state enacted a law that immediately restores the right to vote for people with felony convictions on release from incarceration and a law that allowed for same day voter registration and streamlined the provisional ballot process.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
“I think a lot of it has to do with political will and who was in charge of the state,” said West Juhl, Director of Communications and Outreach at the ACLU Nevada, about the recent election policy changes. “Ever since then, it’s really just sort of been a bit of a snowball, but in a good way.”
After making temporary changes due to risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nevada became one of only a handful of states last year to make universal access to vote-by-mail permanent.
The Nevada Legislature also enacted Assembly Bill 321, which changed “the process and timelines for [Indigenous communities] to request a polling location, a ballot drop box, or both in order to improve access to elections.” Tribes can also now request a polling place, a ballot drop box, or both within the boundaries of a reservation for the day of the primary election or general election as long as they satisfy criteria laid out by the local county clerk.
Confusion, incarceration suppress turnout
Despite these broad reforms, some feel the state has not provided enough resources for voter education and outreach to significantly increase turnout. The 2022 Primary Election had a turnout of 25.77% compared to the 2020 Primary Election turnout of 29.51%. Primary turnout was still higher than in 2018 when it had a 22.91% rate.
The problem, according to Sondra Cosgrove, executive director of Vote Nevada and a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, is that there have been a lot of major changes in a very short period of time, which can be very confusing for voters: “People who get their mail-in ballot, they call and email me and they’re like: ‘Am I required to use this? Because I wanted to vote in person,’ and they don’t know.”
The legislature didn’t allocate enough money for voter education and outreach to inform voters on how things have changed and how it impacts them, she said. “If you’re gonna do a reform package, within that reform has to be money for voter outreach and voter education. There needs to be hotlines or websites or something where people, if they have questions, can find an FAQ, or a phone number to call.”
Juhl at the ACLU expressed specific concern for Nevada’s tribal nations in terms of ballot access. Nevada requires a state-issued ID to register to vote online, and “it can be tricky sometimes for folks that don’t have that, or they don’t accept tribal IDs from the DMV.” Tribal IDs should always be accepted as an official form of identification when registering to vote in Nevada, they said.
When registering to vote in person, tribal IDs are supposed to be accepted, said Tammi Tiger, an appointed member of the Nevada Indian Commission.
“However, the tribal IDs must meet the standard for primary ID. You have to have all of the compliance requirements, your birthday, your picture, your weight, your height, in order for it to be used,” she said, and not all tribes have the mechanisms or resources to issue new IDs that are compliant.
Tiger’s biggest concern for Nevada’s Indigenous population is access to early voting across rural areas. If a polling place is provided on a reservation for early voting, county officials are not required by law to also provide a polling location on Election Day.
Access is unequal depending on local resources and policy. Clark County, the most populous county in the state, guarantees a two-week early voting period. “I would love to see the same expanded all across rural Nevada,” said Tiger.
The need for increased ballot accessibility in county jails is also a top priority for ACLU Nevada, according to Juhl: “We see a lot of people who are pre-conviction, but still may not have good access to casting a ballot, which is problematic for us.”
Black people constituted 9% of state residents, but 24% of people in jail and 31% of people in prison as of 2018, according to a Vera Institute report on incarceration trends.
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