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The Politicalization Of Nevada's Mail-In Primary

Two mail-in ballots.
Paul Boger
KUNR Public Radio
Nevada's mail-in election has drawn criticism from President Donald Trump and other conservative voting rights groups who claim voting by mail will lead to increased fraud.

For the first time, a majority of the voters in Nevada will cast a ballot by mail in the upcoming June 9 primary. But the decision to switch to a mostly mail-in election hasn’t come without some controversy. KUNR's Paul Boger has the report.

It’s been roughly two-and-a-half months since Governor Steve Sisolak issued stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, and if you’re anything like me, small daily chores have recently become a lifeline—a helpful way to keep the days straight and kill a little time.

One of those chores is checking the mail.

Mostly, it’s the same old’ stuff, bills and junk. An occasional package gets delivered from time to time, but recently something new appeared—a ballot.

This month, election officials in Nevada sent out ballots to the more than 1.4 million active registered voters in the state as part of the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But that comes with a price.

First, the fiscal impact. Elections are expensive. Typically, Nevada’s 17 counties spend roughly $2-3 million combined on an election.

This primary?

About $4.5 million according to Wayne Thorley, the deputy secretary for elections. He’s essentially the guy who oversees Nevada’s whole electoral process. Thorley says a lot of that money will come from federal grants; most of it going to pay for printing and postage.

“We need more central scanning and tabulation equipment,” Thorley said. “We need to print many, many more ballots than we’ve ever printed before, about a nine-fold increase in the number of ballots we’re printing and mailing.”

But there’s also been some political fallout.

Since the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. in mid-March, several states have taken steps to move to a mostly mail-in election. They include New York, North Dakota, Delaware and New Jersey as well as Michigan and, of course, Nevada.

It’s those last two in particular that have drawn criticism from President Donald Trump. In recent weeks, Trump has taken to Twitter to voice concerns with voting by mail, even calling out Michigan and Nevada specifically, claiming that they’re rife with the potential for fraud. He defended that stance during a press conference at the White House earlier this week.

“When you do all mail-in voting, ballots, you’re asking for fraud,” he said. “People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them and then they sign them and then they give them in. The people don’t even know if they’re double-counted.”

The president has also threatened to withhold federal funds if the states go through with the mail-in election.

For years, academics and think tanks have conducted study after study looking into the prevalence of voter fraud in the U.S. That research has yielded little evidence for many of the president’s claims that widespread voter fraud may affect the outcome of the election.

Still, election officials in Nevada are not taking chances and have taken steps to limit the possibility of fraud.

First, each ballot has an individualized bar code that’s linked to each specific voter. If a ballot comes in without a proper envelope with a barcode that doesn’t match the system, it isn't counted.

Second, the state uses signature matching to determine if the ballot was cast by that specific voter. If the signatures don’t match then the vote is not counted unless it can otherwise be verified.

“This is the same process we have always used,” said Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula. “Mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are nothing new. We have been doing this for quite a while.”

Yet, since the move to a mail-in election, conservative groups have repeatedly filed lawsuits asking a federal judge to step in and rule on the constitutionality of the state’s decision. Catherine Engelbrecht is the founder of a national group called True the Vote - one of the plaintiffs in a recent suit. In a recent video, Engelbrecht told supporters the very identity of the country was at stake.

“It is time for we, the people, to reassert our power [and] take back our freedoms because if we don’t stand up now, soon enough, we’re all going to peek our heads out of our front doors and realize that, while the fog of COVID descended upon us all, once it lifts, we’re no longer the country we thought we were,” she said.

So far, federal judges have essentially thrown out those complaints. But those groups aren’t the only ones looking to make changes to the election.

Last month, Democrats in Nevada sued the state in an effort to include more in-person voting sites. They also wanted elections officials to send a ballot to all registered voters even if they’ve been marked inactive. That suit was dropped when officials in heavily-Democratic Clark County alone agreed to make the changes. And that may be part of the reason for the concerns over how elections are conducted. At the end of the day, it’s about winning and even a slight edge may help. Statistically, easing voter access and higher turnout tends to favor Democrats. The GOP knows this and so do Democrats.

But for UNR Political Science Professor Eric Herzik it’s a cynical approach. He says efforts to undermine the legitimacy of an election also undermine the foundation on which the country was built.

“This is what we see in the developing world or in one-party states,” he said. “This seed has been sown and it’s going to grow for a while.“

Currently, election officials say there are no plans to change November’s general election. In other words, Nevadans will be able to cast a ballot in person as they’ve done in every previous election. But with the threat of the coronavirus continuing to cast doubts about the safety of any public interaction, it’s likely many Nevadans will vote by mail.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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