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Nevada's changing election laws

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

This past week, a Nevada man was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for sending death threats to several elected officials in the state after he claimed the 2020 election was stolen. It shows the impact of former President Donald Trump's lies about that election in a swing state that could play a pivotal role in the midterms. Meanwhile, several election officials have resigned after facing intense pressure from other pro-Trump election deniers. In the midst of this contentious electoral environment, Nevada, like other states we've been looking at in our series on changing voting laws across the country, has enacted new legislation that impacts the way votes are cast and counted there.

For this week's installment in that series, we wanted to look at how Nevada is changing its election laws and what that means for you, the voter. With us to discuss those changes is NPR's election correspondent Miles Parks. Miles, thanks for joining us.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: And also joining us is Lucia Starbuck, a democracy reporter for member station KUNR, based in Reno, Nev. Lucia Starbuck, thank you for joining us on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LUCIA STARBUCK, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

THOMPSON: So, Miles, before we get down to the details, can you give a bird's-eye view as to why Nevada is part of the national conversation?

PARKS: Sure. I mean, first and foremost, you really do not get much swingier when it comes to swing states. This year, there are competitive races up and down the ballot in Nevada - for governor, for the Senate, and notably, for what I cover, which is voting, the secretary of state race. One of the most prominent and extreme election deniers anywhere in the country running for one of these seats is GOP nominee Jim Marchant. He's endorsed by former President Trump, and he has not backed down over the last couple of years on his conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Here he is speaking a couple weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MARCHANT: We have something in common. President Trump and I lost an election in 2020 because of a rigged election. I've been working since November 4, 2020, to expose what happened, and what I found out is horrifying.

PARKS: And even though this is a very closely divided partisan state, it's currently run by Democrats at the legislature and at the governor level. And partially because of that, it's been a state that, since 2020, has expanded voting access.

THOMPSON: So, Lucia, tell us how your state expanded voting measures.

STARBUCK: Yeah, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how people vote in Nevada. Every registered voter receives a mail-in ballot unless they opt out. That was first put in place for the primary in 2020. Nevada had mail-in ballots only, and then the majority Democrat legislature met and made mail-in ballots and in-person voting for the 2020 presidential election. And that is now a permanent law. Every voter will get that mail-in ballot unless they opt out. That law also allowed voters to allow someone to return their ballot. That's helpful for older adults, disabled people and rural voters. And Nevada also allows - eligible voters are automatically registered after common transactions at the DMV.

THOMPSON: Interesting. Voting by mail played a major role in the 2020 election, when many voted remotely rather than taking on COVID protocols to vote in person. Miles, vote-by-mail came up in our discussion about Georgia. Were vote-by-mail laws one of the larger facets of voting that changed across the country?

PARKS: Absolutely. I think the largest change across the country in 2020. I mean, the rate of voters who voted by mail basically doubled between the 2018 midterms and 2020. And the rate of voters who voted in person on Election Day got cut in half, just between those two elections. This year, it's going to be really telling about what happens with those vote-by-mail numbers, whether misinformation about vote-by-mail security affects whether people decide to continue doing it, whether Democrats and Republicans - how they feel about it. It's going to be something we and academic researchers, voting officials are going to be watching really closely.

STARBUCK: It really is a partisan issue, but mail-in ballots are still pretty popular in Nevada. People still want to vote that way. Nearly 48% of ballots were cast by mail in 2020, and that jumped during our primary in June, where nearly 57% of voters voted by mail. Another thing I wanted to talk about is automatic voter registration at the DMV. With that, in the two years since it was created, more than 300,000 new voters were registered. And that also led to a record number of active voters. Eligible voters with this automatic registration - they are registered nonpartisan by default. That's no party affiliation. So that led to a surge in nonpartisan voters. And at one point, they surpassed registered Democrats and Republicans. Now it's pretty evenly split among the three.

THOMPSON: Miles, you've also reported on efforts in Nevada to move to hand-counting ballots. This is instead of using machines to count the ballots. Tell us about that.

PARKS: Right. So we've seen this push all across the country by conspiracy theorists to push towards hand-counting ballots, even though research, time and time again, has shown this to be a less accurate and more expensive way to run elections. And we're seeing it in Nevada as kind of the epicenter of this far-right movement. A small county there called Nye County is planning to hand-count ballots alongside their machine tabulation, and another county, during this summer's primary, spent more than seven hours hand-counting just a few hundred ballots as part of its certification of this summer's primary election. So we're seeing pushes for this all across the country, but Nevada is kind of this epicenter.

STARBUCK: And these conversations - they're not just happening in the rural parts of Nevada. In Washoe County, where Reno and Sparks reside, a Washoe County commissioner - she proposed hand-counting ballots and also having National Guard members at the polls, which was later changed to sheriff deputies. So this push isn't just happening in rural Nevada.

THOMPSON: So, Miles, put all this in context for us, please.

PARKS: The bottom line here is this is going to be one of the most widely watched secretary of state races across the country. If Jim Marchant does win this race, then elections in Nevada could look very different in 2024. As Lucia mentioned, vote-by-mail has been embraced over the last couple years by voters, but there are also a lot of conspiracies that have come along with that. And so we're kind of seeing Nevada being a microcosm of a lot of these swing states. If it's not the most-watched state from a voting administration perspective, it's one of them. Over the next couple of years, it's going to be a state that we, as journalists and election officials and academics, are going to be looking at for clues for what 2024 is going to look like.

THOMPSON: That was Miles Parks, NPR's voting and election reporter, and Lucia Starbuck, democracy reporter from member station KUNR, joining us from Las Vegas.

PARKS: Thank you so much.

STARBUCK: Thanks for having us.

THOMPSON: Thank you. And next week, we will continue our series, looking at the state of Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Lucia Starbuck