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As Other States Restrict Voting, Nevada Legislators Seek To Widen Access

Associated Press

Across the country, Republican lawmakers are enacting laws that create stronger requirements for people to vote. From President Biden on down, those laws are being criticized as restricting access to vote. 

But here in Nevada, where Democrats are in control of the statehouse, many new proposals would create more opportunities for people to vote. 

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson is sponsoring a bill that would allow a majority of Nevadans to vote by mail, making a law that was adopted for the pandemic into a permanent feature.

Frierson told KNPR's State of Nevada that Assembly Bill 4, which allowed for mail-in ballots to be sent to all eligible, active voters in Nevada, was a way to give people access to the polls without putting their lives at risk during a pandemic.

“But it was also an opportunity for us to test what has been done in several other states, including Washington, Oregon, Utah, expanding access to the polls,” he said.

Frierson said the high voter turnout and the voter acceptance of mail-in ballots showed that it is an option that should not be taken away.

The speaker said Assembly Bill 321, which would make the mail-in options permanent, is still a work in progress, and he is more than willing to listen to opponents of the bill about changes.

“But at the end of the day, we are expanding the number of polling places. We are allowing folks to mail in their ballot, drop off their ballot or they can still vote in person,” he said.

AB321 includes a provision to allow people to opt-out of mail-in balloting. It also calls for annual training for local election officials and for the secretary of state to work with the Office of Vital statistics to clean up Nevada's voter rolls.

The efforts by lawmakers in Nevada are in stark contrast to bills in other states that critics say restrict access to the electoral process. Georgia has come under fire for a recently passed law that voting rights advocates say strongly limits access. 

“I think it is very telling that we are trying to make sure that we give every eligible Nevada voter choices," Frierson said, "It’s about freedom and that’s something that Nevada has always been about as the Battle Born state.”

The speaker believes Nevada is making a statement that it "values access to the polls" and "values increased participation in the electoral process," but it also "values it being safe and secure and reliable."

He said it is important that policymakers communicate and educate the public about the process to make sure there is confidence in the system.

“But at the end of the day, I think that you see those other states that are taking action that is in response to elections where they lost ground. To the contrary, here in Nevada, we expanded access, and guess what? In the Assembly, we had a Democrat super-majority and we lost three seats.”

Even though Democrats lost seats in the Assembly, Frierson said expanding access in the 2020 elections was the right thing to do 

“I think expanding access is a non-partisan issue. It’s an issue of democracy and access and I’m proud of the work that we’ve been able to do to maintain security but increase options for eligible Nevada voters.”

Emily Persaud-Zamora is the executive director of Silver State Voices, a non-partisan civic engagement group comprised of 19 different civic groups from around the state.

She said the member groups in her organization have been talking with Nevadans about the issue or mail-in balloting and overwhelmingly they support it.

"We saw over 48 percent of Nevadans voted by mail in this last election cycle," she said.

While the pandemic obviously played a role in that turnout, Persaud-Zamora said many people didn't know they could request an absentee ballot until they were sent to them directly last year.

"There is an education piece there," she said, "Sending it to everyone really educated a lot of people that - yes, this is an option. You don't have to go in person. You can actually vote at home."

In addition, Persaud-Zamora said Nevadans live busy lives and giving them an option to vote by mail just increases accessibility.

The speaker told KNPR's State of Nevada that he is always willing to reach across the aisle and talk to his Republican colleagues about concerns they might have with AB321. 

“I think, unfortunately, with the national rhetoric there may be no way to get some people to come across,” he said. 

Republicans are backing measures that would roll back vote by mail – and require voters to show a photo ID to cast their ballot.

Assemblyman Andy Matthews of Las Vegas is one of those Republicans – he wants the state to roll back its vote by mail system, not expand it. 

Matthews told KNPR's State of Nevada that AB4, which created the mail-in ballot system during states of emergency, was unnecessary, to begin with, and it undermined the security and integrity of the election process. 

He believes everything should be done to ensure that everyone who has the right to vote can do so legally.

“As part of that, we really need to make sure it is only legal votes that are counted,” he said.

Matthews said Nevada already has "no-excuse absentee voting," which allows voters to request an absentee ballot, but he says that system has the safeguards in place to make sure those who are turning in absentee ballots are who they say they are.

He supports bills to improve access to no-excuse absentee ballots. He doesn't like AB321, in part, because of Nevada's voting rolls, which he called "notoriously unclean," meaning they have incorrect information like old addresses and deceased people still listed

The assemblyman said he talked to several people while on the campaign trail in November who said they received several mail-in ballots for people who didn't live at the address. 

He said honest people would do the right thing and not turn in a ballot that wasn't theirs, they're not sure others would do the same thing.

“That just does so much damage to voters’ trust and confidence in our system of voting,” he said.

Plus, the provision in AB321 that allows voters to opt-out of receiving a mail-in ballot does nothing to address that problem, he said. Matthews believes that is the core security problem with mail-in balloting, and the bill to create a mail-in ballot system will, “permanently codify the fundamental inherent problems of universal mail-in balloting.”

Critics of Republican proposals to change voting laws have said they are based on the "big lie" from former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud. 

There is no evidence of widespread fraud and numerous judges around the country have dismissed cases that claimed otherwise. Nevada's Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who is Republican, said there was no evidence of fraud in Nevada.

Matthews said he is not interested in relitigating the past and President Joe Biden is the president. 

 “The problem with our current system is that it is designed in such a way where it’s hard to know the extent of fraud or error,” he said.

Matthews said that supporters of the system at first said there was no fraud, but "when that argument became impossible to defend," they changed their story and now claim "no widespread" fraud. He questions what is meant by the word 'widespread.' 

“The bottom line is: We should not accept any level of fraud or abuse," he said, "We ought to do all we can to make sure that we don’t have that. It is all a recipe for complete destruction of any kind of voter, citizen confidence in our system of elections.”

He wants to make sure the system is secure so there is not another "crisis of confidence" in the election system.

One of the ways he wants to make the system more secure is by requiring voters to show photo ID.

“We take it for granted in so many facets of life that to participate in a given activity that you need to show ID," he said, "It’s just a common-sense measure, and unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem that those on the other side of the aisle are inclined to support it, which I think is a shame.”

Zoltan Hajnal is a professor of political science at UC San Diego. He used verified voter data to analyze the impact of strict voter ID laws, which require voters to show a photo ID to have their vote counted.

"The bottom line is... the implementation of strict voter ID laws differentially reduces turnout or racial and ethnic minorities," he said, "Groups that are traditionally disadvantaged are being even more disadvantaged by these laws."

Hajnal said the racial inequalities in the country are "exacerbated" by voter ID laws. 

The problem, he said, is that many people are already on the fence about voting and many people are not motivated to vote, which means any hurdle to casting a ballot can negatively impact their decision to vote. 

So, if someone doesn't have a valid ID and he or she must travel a long way to get one or pay a lot of money for it - just so they can vote, they likely won't do it.

"Yes, it is not a huge hurdle but it is a hurdle," Hajnal said, "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."

Brian Melendez understands firsthand how strict voter ID laws can become a barrier for Nevada's tribal communities. He is the coordinator for Nevada Native Vote Project. 

He said many Native Americans in Nevada don't have a driver's license or a state ID. Instead, they carry a tribal ID card that is issued by a federally recognized tribe. Melendez said, for the most part, tribe members could use those cards to vote.

"But I think there is always going to be a structural problem with people in those spaces having driver's licenses," he said, "There are a lot of people on the reservation that live super far away. Some of these reservations, it's a three-hour trip to get groceries and it's even further to get to a DMV." 

Melendez said if you don't have a car, then you probably won't have a driver's license. 

Plus, he said the voting by mail offered a chance for more engagement by tribal members, who may not always have a physical location, but will always have a place where they'll pick up and drop off their mail.

On the subject of voter ID laws, Speaker Frierson said he is not interested in moving Nevada backward.

“If we’re talking about expanding access, making what is a constitutional right, not a privilege, more accessible I will remain open to those ideas and will continue to work across the aisle to try to find any common ground – if there is common ground that can be found.”

Jason Frierson, Speaker of the Assembly (D–Las Vegas);  Andy Matthews, Assemblyman (R–Las Vegas);  Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science, UC San Diego;  Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director, Silver State Voices;  Brian Melendez, coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.