How Nevada Expanded Access to Democracy in 2020
We started off 2020 in Nevada with the wind at our backs. We had just finished up a successful legislative session with the first Democratic Governor in 20 years and legislation that expanded ways to vote, including adding same day voter registration. The Nevada State Democratic Party, a model organizing machine, just carried out a successful presidential caucus—First in the West.
Like the rest of the country, we felt we had the pieces in place to beat President Trump. Then COVID-19 hit and the world shut down. Suddenly, Nevadans were facing unemployment numbers we had never seen, evictions, food insecurity, in addition to the fear of losing family members to a deadly virus. Access to safe and secure voting was the last thing on many of their minds. But as the lockdowns turned from weeks to months, it was clear the June primary election would need to be an entirely new concept for many Nevada voters—voting by mail.
In May, our Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske made the decision to turn our down ballot primary election into an all-mail election. Her office planned to send every active registered voter a ballot in the mail and limit the number of in-person voting locations to just one per county. We were grateful voters would automatically receive a ballot, but the reality of limiting voting locations by county didn’t make sense in a state where 87% of our population lives in just two of our 17 counties. We know limiting options isn’t the recipe for increased participation and reducing in-person locations would certainly cause overcrowding and long lines—the last thing you want during a pandemic.
So, we went to court.
The state party, along with the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Priorities USA, sued the Secretary of State in order to increase the number of voters who would automatically receive a ballot in the mail and increase the number of in-person polling locations during early voting and on Election Day. Together we were able to reach an agreement with the Secretary of State to establish additional polling locations, send mail ballots to all registered voters, and allow Nevadans to more readily cure their ballots. After witnessing the challenges presented by an all-mail election in the primary, I knew we had to do more ahead of the November election to make sure no one had to choose between their health and their vote. Governor Sisolak called a Special Legislative Session to address issues related to the pandemic, and on day one I authored a bill to implement universal voting by mail that also mandated adequate in-person voting options. This landmark legislation ensured that every active registered voter would automatically receive a ballot in the mail and counties had to provide an appropriate number of in-person polling locations commensurate with a normal general election.
Unsurprisingly, this bill drew the ire of some Republicans. Former President Donald Trump took to Twitter to spread lies about the way it was passed and what it would mean for Nevada. After the bill was passed and signed into law by the Governor, the state was inundated with false attacks and litigation stemming from the Trump campaign, outside groups, and the Republican National Committee. With the help of some talented lawyers who understand the value in expanding access to the ballot box, Democrats were able to intervene in these cases and defend my bill.
In total, more than 12 lawsuits were filed in Nevada—between the primary election and the general—aimed at limiting voters’ voices in 2020. I am so grateful none of them were successful. I believe, as the late John Lewis did, that “the vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy. ” Making voting easier and more equitable is a cause to which I’ve devoted my career in the Nevada Assembly. That’s why I’m so glad we had the support we needed to defend this critical policy.
Nevada is a small, transient state that represents ethnic, racial and geographic diversity. We often talk about how elections here are won on the ground because voters need to be courted and require more than the usual lip service to get them to the polls. Even with the limitations on efforts to increase in-person voter turnout due to COVID-19, more Nevadans than ever participated in this election. Nearly half of voters did so by mail compared to just 7% and 9% in the last two general elections respectively. In the end, more than 48% of ballots cast were by mail—either through the postal service or at drop boxes at polling locations .
In 2020, Nevada showed the country we are still a critical battleground state and Democrats showed we are willing to fight for every voter to be heard. We made historic gains in the fight against voter suppression during our 2019 session and during our Special Session last August. Now, we prepare to do it all over again. That is why, as we are just days into a new legislative session, I am sponsoring a bill to make expanded vote by mail permanent. We will continue to make “good trouble” here in Nevada by ensuring all eligible Nevadans have many safe, convenient and secure options to cast their ballot.
Jason Frierson is the Speaker of the Nevada State Assembly