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COVID-19 is forcing voter engagement efforts to go virtual.

The Secretary of State’s office says the rate of new voter registrations is down this year compared to 2016, because there aren’t as many in-person voter registration drives as during a normal election year. 

But Reno-based community nonprofit ACTIONN is adapting to voter engagement during the pandemic by hosting a series of online forums connect voters with local candidates.

Dennise Mena is the communications specialist for ACTIONN. She explained that her group created a series of questions based on conversations with community and faith leaders around Northern Nevada.

Those questions were then given to candidates running for all kinds of local and state races. The answers are part of the group's voter guide, and they're part of the virtual candidate forums.

"These candidate forums have been really, really helpful, I think, in connecting Nevadans and voters to information about their local and state candidates who are running for these positions to learn about their plans and stances around issues that not a lot of other people are asking candidates," Mena said.

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The group is asking candidates about COVID-19, racial justice, policing, housing and budget cuts.

"We're asking them questions that we see our community really want answers to in this moment," she said.

They've already conducted two forums. One with the Reno city council candidates and one with the Washoe County School District school board candidates.

Mena said in that case they asked specific questions about racial injustice and what specifically the candidates would do to address school police and discriminatory punishments in regards to Black and brown students. 

"We are really asking every single candidate - in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought light back to what is happening in terms of police brutality and racist policing and what is it you will do to make sure that these issues stop," she said.

One of the people that helped craft the questions is Lili Baran. She is a community organizer and activist in Northern Nevada.

"I think that our biggest priority right now in this community are policing, how we're going to treat racial injustices in our community and houselessness," she said, "Those seem to be the biggest things that everyone is concerned with." 

Baran said all of those issues have not really been handled yet. She said those issues have always been important to some people, including her. 

"I think that COVID has exacerbated certain things, like housing inequality," she said. 

She pointed to the eviction moratorium that is set to expire soon, as a reason people are wanting to address some of these bigger underlying societal issues.

Baran doesn't think local or state leaders have responded well to the issues brought up by the pandemic, and it's economic fallout. She said she has been personally impacted by cuts to school funding enacted by the Legislature.

She is a teacher, and her hours have been cut because of budget cuts. Baran said she lost her health care coverage because of it.

In addition, she is not pleased with Reno City Council's response.

"Though they have this CARES [Act] money, I don't know that they've looked to the community and the people who are impacted by these things enough to know how to spend the money," she said. 

She said she is hearing from a lot of people that they are getting help from local and state governments that is too little too late.

There are three more virtual forums coming up.


Dennise Mena, Communications Specialist, ACTIONN; Lily Baran, Community organizer, Mass Liberation Northern Nevada

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