While Republican-led states like Georgia are adopting new voting laws that have prompted widespread criticism and comparisons to Jim Crow, Nevada’s Democrat majority is looking for ways to widen access.
One of the bills under consideration would bring universal mail balloting to the Silver State.
Last election, as a precaution against COVID-19, Nevada lawmakers approved a plan that mailed ballots to every active, registered voter in the state. But that law, Assembly Bill 4, which passed on a party-line vote during one of the state’s special legislative sessions over the summer, was designed to only take effect during a state of emergency.
A new bill introduced by Las Vegas-based Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson would make those changes permanent.
“We value access to the polls, we value increased, record participation in the electoral process,” Frierson told KNPR’s State of Nevada. “But we also value it being safe and secure and reliable.”
Almost 300,000 more votes were cast in 2020 than in 2016. And while former President Donald Trump’s campaign brought a series of lawsuits alleging election-rigging — part of a strategy that’s been referred to as Trump’s “big lie” by President Joe Biden and others — Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
The courts also rejected the Trump campaign’s legal challenges.
Freshman Republican Assemblyman Andy Matthews of Las Vegas was able to flip his district, taking his seat from Democratic incumbent Shea Backus. Despite his win, he says AB4’s rollout led to doubts among voters who he spoke to during the campaign.
“The problem with our current system is that it’s designed in such a way where it’s hard to know the extent of fraud or error,” he said, citing concerns that vote-by-mail ballots inadvertently delivered to the wrong address could have been filled out by someone else.
In response, Matthews sponsored his own bill to completely repeal AB4, even though the existing law would only come into effect if a future election fell during a declared state of emergency.
Emily Persaud-Zamora disagrees. She’s executive director of Silver State Voices, a nonpartisan group working to expand voting access.
“What we saw overwhelmingly in this last election cycle is that Nevadans do support the ability to cast their ballot via mail and like to have those options,” she said.
As evidence, she points to the popularity of the mail-in ballots, which made up more than 48% of total votes cast during the general election.
During the 2016 presidential contest, just under 7% of votes were registered via so-called absent ballots and mailing ballots — two older categories that could become obsolete under the Democrats’ new plan.
UCSD political science professor Zoltan Hajnal also dismissed the idea that sending ballots to voters opened the door to voter impersonation, because Nevada isn’t the first state to administer a majority vote-by-mail election.
“We want to make a distinction between claims of problems and actually evidence of problems,” he said. “We’ve got lots of experience with this. And the empirical evidence is essentially, that those structures work quite well.”
And according to Brian Melendez of the Nevada Native Vote Project, AB4 increased voter engagement within the state’s tribal communities, too.
That’s partially because receiving a ballot in the mail can remind people who normally wouldn’t show up in person to vote. But the law also allowed people to designate someone else to deliver their ballot to a drop box for them — a critical provision in remote reservations where car ownership is less common and polling places can be hours away.
“When it comes to the mail-in vote, or when it comes to the ability for a family member or a responsible individual to take those ballots over, that works,” he said. “It worked during the global pandemic and I see it working moving forward, because our communities responded really well to that.”
Meanwhile, Matthews’ bill to repeal AB4 — and proposals from other Republican lawmakers seeking to require voters to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot — faces a stark deadline: Any bill that hasn’t been approved by a committee by the end of Friday, April 9, will be effectively dead.
With no hearings scheduled, the GOP election reforms are unlikely to get anywhere.
Even though voter ID laws enjoy widespread support among Americans from both parties, Hajnal says they can have negative effects on Black, Latinx and low-income voters who are disproportionately less likely to have a driver's license.
“If our motivation in democracy is to make participation as broad and as even as possible, any new barrier is moving us in the wrong direction,” he said.
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