COVID-19 has changed just about every aspect of daily life over the past few months, and that includes Nevada’s June 9 primary. For the first time, the Silver State is holding a mail-in election to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. While many voters have already cast their ballot, others have questions. KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Wayne Thorley, Nevada’s deputy secretary for elections, to learn more about the primary.
Boger: So for the first time, Nevada is conducting a mail-in election. I'm curious, what does that entail?
Thorley: For the June 9 primary election, all registered voters, all active registered voters, will be sent a ballot automatically in the mail. No voter has to request a ballot like they normally do. So this is much different than how we usually do elections. In normal elections, 90% plus of the voters will go vote in-person at a polling place and under 10% will request an absentee ballot. Now we're sending an actual mail ballot to all the registered voters. So that number should basically flip on its head where the overwhelming majority of votes will be cast by mail.
Boger: Is transitioning like this cheaper? Is it more expensive? What are some of the logistics involved here?
Thorley: For the one-time cost of transitioning to an all-mail election, it's fairly expensive. Through the CARES Act, Congress appropriated $400 million to states for election grants to help states make changes to their election processes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevada's allocation of that money was $4.5 million. We're going to use that money to help cover these kinds of one-time costs to switch to an all-mail election. For example, we need more central scanning and tabulation equipment.
We have to print many, many more ballots than we've ever printed before. About a nine-fold increase in the number of ballots that we're printing and mailing. We're paying for postage return on all ballots because we want to make sure no voter is prohibited from voting, simply because they don't have the proper return postage. So there's a lot of costs that go into setting this up, and like I said, Congress has been supportive in making money available so that we can cover those costs.
Boger: You said that any ballot that's sent by election day will be counted. It sounds like there's going to be a pretty significant delay between election day and when results are officially announced.
Thorley: There will be. This is an important piece of our voter education campaign: to make voters and candidates aware that there will be a longer delay than the normal in posting the official election results. Voters have until June 9, which is election day, to get their mail ballot postmarked. And then, as long as we receive their ballot no more than seven days after the election, we will count it. So we will be tabulating and counting ballots up to a week after the election, as long as those ballots were postmarked by election day.
The counties have up to 10 days to actually conduct what's called a canvas. It’s essentially the official certification of the election results in the county. So we will post [the] election results on election night, but they will be incomplete. Counties will continue to receive ballots and count them. We will be updating those continuously, potentially through the canvas, and up to the canvas.
Boger: Critics of voting by mail and mail-in elections have voice concerns over election security. You know, they argue that there's a greater chance of fraud with these sorts of mail-in ballots. What is your office doing to limit that threat?
Thorley: There are unique security challenges that come with paper ballots, as opposed to most ballots being cast on a voting machine. Every ballot is sent with a unique bar code, both on the ballot and on the outbound return envelopes. This allows us to track ballots. It also allows us to make sure that voters don't copy their ballot or vote more than once in the same election. Only ballots that are returned in official ballot return envelopes will be counted. Voters cannot just grab an envelope from their desk and return it in just a plain envelope. Voters have to sign their absentee ballot return envelope. We match that signature with a signature we have on file for the voter to confirm that it was actually that voter who voted the ballot, and not somebody else. If they forget to sign their ballot or the signature does not match, we will contact the voter and give them an opportunity to do what's called curing, [to] cure the signature, so we can actually count their ballot once they confirm that they did actually cast that ballot.
On the election processing side, there's a lot of physical security in place. All the ballots are kept in boxes that have tamper-evident seals applied to them. There are tight access control logs. So when it comes time to count the ballots, that's all open to the public to view if they want. And to see the processes that we put in place.
As a note, anyone who does not register to vote by the May 21 deadline will still be able to register to cast an in-person ballot up until polls close at 7 p.m. on June 9. At least one in-person polling place will remain open in each county for the primary.