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Published — October 27, 2020 Updated — November 2, 2020 at 3:00 pm ET

GOP lawsuit in Nevada is a second attack on state’s expanded mail-in voting

The state has made voting more accessible overall, but casting a ballot remains difficult for many in tribal communities.


Update: November 2, 3 p.m.: On Monday, Nov. 2, Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson denied the Trump campaign and the Nevada Republican Party’s request to halt and add cameras to observe the review of mailed-in ballots in Clark County, Nevada. “There is no evidence of debasement or dilution of any citizen’s vote,” Wilson wrote in his order. 

Voters were already dropping off ballots or voting early in person when President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Nevada Republican Party filed a lawsuit raising doubts about that state’s newly expanded mail-in voting system.

Nevada’s Democratic-controlled legislature voted in August to require that county registrars automatically send mail-in ballots to every registered active voter — a measure designed to support voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump campaign and the GOP immediately sued to block the plan and lost.

Their latest challenge seeks a temporary restraining order halting early vote counts in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and 72% of Nevada’s population, until their demands for closer observation of vote counting are granted.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant updates on restrictions to voting rights and access in the state:

Fight over absentee ballots

The lawsuit — a hearing is set for Oct. 28 — is one in a string that the GOP and the Trump campaign have filed against states that have expanded mail-in voting due to the risks of coronavirus exposure while voting in person.

Even if a judge tosses out this latest challenge, Nevada voting rights activists worry that the lawsuits and Trump’s attacks have cast enough doubt on mail-in ballots that significant numbers of voters won’t participate by mail or in person.

In this latest lawsuit, the Nevada GOP complains that the party needs closer access to observe Clark County’s election workers, perhaps using video cameras to scrutinize how workers examine ballots. The GOP needs to be assured that it can challenge signatures on ballot materials if they look suspect, Trump campaign officials say.

“I think this lawsuit is really uncalled for and is really a distraction when we need our elections officials to be spending their time in conducting and administering the election,” said Emily Zamora, executive director of Silver State Voices, a group pushing to expand voter registration and participation among Nevada’s multicultural communities.

“People might not want to participate in vote-by-mail because [the GOP] has asked for a halt to it,” Zamora said. She said her organization has worked closely with election officials in Clark County for many years and has confidence that they’re doing the best they can to conduct the election during the pandemic.

Brian Melendez, a coordinator of the Nevada Native Vote Project, says Native Americans have already had to struggle to vote in past elections because polling places can be hours away from some remote Native communities.

“We’re already disenfranchised. And you want to keep disenfranchising us more?” Melendez said, summing up his concerns about the impact of the lawsuits. He called the cases a “fear and scare tactic.” Days before the Nov. 3 election, his group is still working with counties to try to get more ballot drop-off boxes placed in closer proximity to Native communities.

In addition to the GOP and the Trump campaign, an individual plaintiff in the Oct. 23 lawsuit is Fred Kraus, an associate of Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire Nevada casino operator. Adelson and his wife donated $213,000 that was moved into a Republican party legal fund that helps finance lawsuits such as those in Nevada.

With a strong union movement, Nevada has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections. In 2016, however, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the state by only 2.2 percentage points — a slim margin that’s led Republicans to believe there’s room for an opening for Trump on Nov. 3.

Trump calls Nevada law a ‘coup’

The GOP legal challenge to Nevada’s mail-in ballot expansion was swift.

The state Republican party and the Trump campaign filed suit days after the law went into effect in August.

Before the pandemic, five states and Washington, D.C., were already automatically mailing ballots to registered voters. This year, Nevada became one of several more to opt for an automatic mailing for the Nov. 3 election. Many other states have moved to expand opportunities this year to apply for or receive mail-in ballots for primaries or the Nov. 3 election, or both.

Nevada’s ballot reform, known as Assembly Bill 4, or AB4, was signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, establishing multiple new policies. The legislation called for the installation of more polling places for early voting and on Election Day, and it also allowed for non-family members to collect and send or deposit mail-in ballots for voters. It also required the automatic mailing of paper ballots to all registered active voters without requiring them to fill out applications.

In a tweet, Trump called the Nevada law “an illegal late night coup” designed to defeat Republicans. He added: “See you in Court!”

Because of the pandemic, the vast majority of voters who participated in Nevada’s June 9 primary also used mail-in ballots that were sent out as an emergency measure. Approximately 223,000 ballots were returned to Clark County as undeliverable because the addresses were no longer valid. In August, as part of its initial challenge to AB4 ahead of the Nov. 3 election, the Trump campaign and GOP seized on the return of ballots as evidence that the system was untrustworthy.

Trump and the state GOP also argued in August that a “hasty” change in election rules would force the GOP “to divert resources and spend significant amounts of money educating Nevada voters on those changes and encouraging them to still vote.”

U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan, appointed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, ruled against the Nevada GOP and the Trump campaign in September. Mahan called the allegations in the lawsuit “speculative” and a “patchwork theory of harm.” He also said that the Trump campaign didn’t have standing, or a legal right, to represent Nevada’s voters.

“The Trump campaign represents only Donald J. Trump and his ‘electoral and political goals’ of reelection,” Mahan wrote.

Zamora said it was “unfortunate” that AB4 passed along party lines, without Republican support.

“Voting access in a critical election should be a nonpartisan issue,” she said.

To ensure citizens don’t get left out, Nevada is also allowing those who didn’t receive a mailed ballot an opportunity to register and cast a ballot during early voting. On Nov. 3, eligible Nevadans can also register and vote that same day as long as they bring an acceptable form of ID and proof of their address, said Kerry Durmick, Nevada state director of All Voting is Local, part of a national voting rights network.

Durmick praised the installation of scores of secure drop-off boxes in Clark and Washoe counties but said voting rights advocates are still trying to inform voters that they don’t have to mail ballots and can use the boxes instead.

Durmick’s group and the Nevada Native Voter Project are also continuing to try to persuade more of Nevada’s rural counties to place drop-off boxes and polling places closer to the state’s 27 tribal communities.

Both groups wrote in mid-October to Humboldt County election officials, in northeastern Nevada, pointing out that Paiute and Shoshone voters in the area’s Fort McDermitt reservation usually have to drive 75 miles, one way, to vote in person. As a result, the groups were able to get an agreement for a drop-off location closer to tribal residents.

“With some counties, though, they just don’t get back to us,” said Melendez, of the Native Voter Project. “We can’t help but feel the structural racism in the system.”

Melendez said that only six or seven of the 27 tribal communities have reasonable access, without having to travel long distances, to either a drop-off box or polling place. Based on research, he said, Native American communities in the state could include 60,000 eligible voters.

“That’s enough to swing some elections,” he said.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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