Reforming the reform
Nevadans love early voting. Will it survive?
While voters in some states have been indifferent to early voting, in small Western states where it is allowed, it has been heavily used, and Nevada is no exception.
More than two-thirds of the voters who turned out in Nevada in 2008 voted early. It was the actual Election Day voting that was the exception. The state will use early voting again in 2012, but with legislatures across the nation considering torpedoing the practice, nothing is certain about the 2013 Nevada Legislature. The state’s legislators have made early attempts to make voting more difficult.
At issue is less the merits of the practice than political advantage. Republicans believe they have been injured by early voting, that the convenience of choosing when to vote attracts people who might not vote on Election Day—and most of them are Democrats. The reaction is reminiscent of what happened in Nevada in 1988, when “motor voter” (registering to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles) was introduced. Democrats had expected to gain the most registrations, but it turned out that Republicans benefited more. At that point, some Democratic legislators started talking about repealing motor voter at the 1989 legislature. They later backed off the threat.
But at many legislatures, the threat to early voting is very real. In Ohio, where about 30 percent of voters cast early ballots in 2008, the legislature enacted House Bill 194 to shorten the early voting period. A citizens group has been trying to get the new law on the ballot as a referendum so the public can decide whether to allow it to stand. In the meantime, the Ohio secretary of state has ruled that the law will not take effect until after the 2012 election.
There is some data that supports the Republican notion that the GOP is hurt by early voting. In Florida in 2008, Democrats who used early voting outnumbered Republicans four to one, after which the state’s GOP legislature reduced the early voting period.
Twenty states west of the Mississippi River allow early voting, including every state west of the Missouri except Washington and Oregon (which have mail elections). East of the Mississippi, 14 states allow early voting, but seven of them have passed legislation curbing it. In every case it is done in the name of “reform” or “modernizing” elections.
So far, no Republican state legislator in Nevada has said he or she will sponsor anti-early voting legislation, but the Nevada Legislature does not allow the public to know what bill drafting requests lawmakers have submitted to the Legislature’s legal division in preparation for the 2013 session. That list remains secret until July next year. Republicans in Nevada have a history of trying to limit access to voting. Democrats clearly intend to be ready if such a proposal is sprung.
Washoe Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Democrat, was taken aback to learn that there is a multi-state effort against early voting. In Nevada, she doubts it would fall along partisan lines.
“My first reaction is a negative one because my constituents love early voting,” she said. “I think they would find quite a few Republicans [in the Legislature] who would object to getting rid of it.”
She added, “It’s really something that helps working people. They can’t get off work or they have multiple jobs, and it’s difficult for them. It lets them vote when they can.”
Nevada Republicans—particularly the more dogmatic ones who are most likely to join the anti-early voting forces—were reluctant to talk about the issue on the record.
“I’d just as soon we got closer to the [legislative] session before this becomes an issue,” said one.
Nevada Senate Republican leader Mike McGinness said, “It’s never been a caucus issue for us,” referring to the Senate GOP caucus which rigidly enforces party votes on legislation.
McGinness himself, who is less doctrinaire than some Republican legislators, said that he has heard good things from voters about early voting.
“I’ve never heard any problems,” he said. “From voters, I’ve heard that they can take their time, that older people don’t have to hurry. The voters like it.”
But he would not be an obstacle to any party effort to restrict or limit early voting. He is term limited and will not be a legislator at the next session.
Some Democrats said privately they would be forced to defend early voting if Republicans try to rein it in. “To be honest, there are good and bad things about early voting,” said one. “I wouldn’t mind a fair look at it. But that would require us [legislators of both parties] to work together, and you know that wouldn’t happen. It would be either yes or no, and we’d have to be yes.”
One Democrat who is dead set against any change is the state’s chief elections officer. Secretary of State Ross Miller said, “Early voting has been a tremendous success in Nevada. I believe it has increased turnout by giving the public a convenient and accessible means of voting prior to election day. Early voting has also prevented many of the types of election administration irregularities we have seen in other states, because unlike other jurisdictions where Election Day is plagued by long lines and strained resources, over half of the public will have already voted in Nevada prior to Election Day.”
Democrats say they consider the effort against early voting to be another in a series of GOP “voter suppression” efforts, as when Republican legislators in several states pushed through measures barring people from voting unless they present government identification cards. Such measures have been introduced in the Nevada Legislature but failed to pass, and an effort to place such a measure on the ballot by initiative petition failed to attract enough signatures. Republicans have said such measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, but election officials say it has been decades since any frauds occurred in Nevada, and Democrats say the real purpose is to prevent low-income people who are less likely to have such identification from voting.
In some states, opponents of early voting who faced hostility from the public fell back to a less extreme position—reducing the length of early voting periods. Nevadans have two weeks to vote early.