EDITORIAL:

Nevada lawmakers must protect voters’ safety, election’s integrity

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John Locher / AP

A man walks by a sign for at a mail-in ballot drop-off location at the Clark County Government Center during a nearly all-mail primary election Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Las Vegas.

When Nevada lawmakers head into this year’s second special legislative session, one of their top priorities should be ensuring that November’s election is safe, secure and open to as many eligible voters as possible.

That may require spending money at a time when the state budget is a smoldering crater, but the funds simply must be found. Nevadans need to go into the election confident they can cast their ballots without fear of exposure to the coronavirus and that all reasonable protections are in place against tampering.

What can’t happen is the traditional election that Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske is calling for.

Citing lack of funds, Cegavske announced recently that the state couldn’t hold the type of all-mail election it conducted in the June primary, and would have to return to standard voting in which most ballots are cast in person. Cegavske said her office’s budget was $4 million to $5 million shy of being able to replicate the all-mail approach of the primary, which she had embraced.

That announcement raised eyebrows, though, and with good reason. Cegavske is a Republican, which prompted questions about whether her motive was simply a budgetary concern or whether she was caving to pressure by her party to restrict all-mail voting.

Certainly, the GOP would love to see Nevada force a traditional vote, in hopes it would have a chilling effect on turnout. Facing a dwindling support base and with a deeply unpopular president at the top of the ticket, Republicans are desperately trying to engineer a low-turnout election. They particularly want to dissuade and disenfranchise voters who traditionally have not participated in large numbers, such as young people, communities of color and low-income voters. The reason: Individuals in those groups tend to support Democratic candidates.

That’s why Republicans in Wisconsin imposed a traditional primary vote in April, subjecting voters to a massive virus outbreak occurring at the time. It didn’t work, as voters bravely faced the risk in order to make their voices heard at the polls, but it was cruel nonetheless and can’t be allowed to happen here.

Nevada, to the credit of responsible lawmakers from both parties, has fended off the GOP’s voter suppression tactics in recent years — outrageous gerrymandering, disqualifications of huge numbers of ballots on trumped-up technicalities, closing of polling places in communities of color, outright fraud like changing party affiliations on ballots or obtaining ballots under false pretenses and the disposing of them, etc.

Regardless of what truly prompted Cegavske’s plan, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Legislature can’t let it be carried out. They must either provide her with the funding for mail balloting or come up with another solution.

With so much at stake in the fall, it’s critical for vote-by-mail to be a ready option for voters. The state has two jobs of paramount importance: ensuring the health and safety of its citizens, and ensuring its citizens’ civil rights are protected. Equal access to the vote is an essential civil right. Any Nevada politician must take the steps necessary to ensure these essential goals are met.

Commendably, Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria has been preparing for a hybrid election featuring both in-person and mail balloting. County commissioners supported his plan, which included setting up 35 early voting sites where full safety protocols would be implemented. Gloria is a hero of civic engagement and his leadership has made Clark County a national model in how to ensure all citizens have access to the polls.

“There’s no reason to believe it (the pandemic) is mysteriously going to go away,” he told commissioners last month. “We’ll still have to make sure that we’re social distancing at all of our polling places, which creates an extreme challenge for us when we’re trying to serve what I think will be a 90% turnout in the general election.”

Nevada voting-rights organizations have lined up behind the hybrid approach, urging lawmakers to approve legislation to provide a vote-by-mail option.

Republicans, on the other hand, couch their voter suppression efforts in false concerns about widespread fraud in mail balloting. But if they’re truly alarmed about voting security, they should approve funding for protection and increase penalties for fraud.

For Nevada lawmakers in both parties, the election should be a top-of-mind concern when the second special session gets underway, which could happen as early as today. The state needs a hybrid vote with appropriate fraud protections, safety protocols, access and consequences for breaking the rules.