Officials in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, began sending ballots to 1.1 million active voters this month as part of Nevada’s first all-mail election, prompted by the coronavirus epidemic. Roughly 200,000 more inactive voters — those who did not reply to a postcard sent to verify their address within 30 days, after it was determined they moved — also received ballots in the mail after Democrats sued to make voting in the primary more accessible.
In recent days, Republicans have seized on a few accounts of what appeared to be unattended or discarded ballots in residential areas of Las Vegas as proof that mailing ballots to all voters opens the door to massive election fraud that will benefit Democrats.
The GOP intensified that line of attack last weekend when the Republican National Committee sued to block California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) from mailing ballots for the general election, the party’s most aggressive attempt so far to prevent a state from changing its voting practices in response to covid-19. The state plans to send ballots to active registered voters only, a spokesman for the secretary of state confirmed in an email.
“It is an absolute brazen power grab,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said this week on Fox News, referring to Newsom’s order. “What he’s talking about is just sending ballots directly to registered voters. . . . There will be ballots littering the streets, and if you don’t believe me, look what is happening in Nevada.”
California and Nevada are not alone. Four states are sending ballots directly to voters for this year’s primaries because of the risks posed by the coronavirus, though so far only California has decided to do so for the general election, joining five states that already vote exclusively by mail.
In Nevada, election officials have not directly addressed reports of unattended ballots found ahead of the primary, and it is unclear how pervasive the problem has been. But those who administer the vote — Republicans and Democrats alike — have said there are sufficient security measures in place to prevent fraud, such as a requirement that signatures on mailed ballots match those on file with the state, unique bar codes that track the receipt of ballots and a prohibition on ballots being returned by third parties.
“Nevada has many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election,” Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, said in a statement last week.
“For over a century, Nevadans, including members of the military, citizens residing outside the state, voters in designated mailing precincts, and voters requesting absentee ballots, have been voting by mail with no evidence of election fraud,” she said.
As states rapidly expand their absentee and mail-in voting options this year in response to the ongoing health crisis, Nevada’s primary represents an early stress test, putting the state’s approach to authenticating ballots and maintaining its voter rolls under scrutiny.
Voting by mail has been less common in Nevada than some other states; only about 9 percent of voters cast absentee ballots in 2018, compared with roughly 65 percent in California. Another potential complication: The state has recently seen a surge in voter registrations, thanks to a new law that adds residents to the voter rolls when they apply for a driver’s license or identification card.
“Most states have never really faced the need to develop a good, consistent statewide system” for voting by mail, said Barry Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Their systems are designed for sporadic use by a smaller number of voters.”
Still, ballot fraud is extremely rare, Burden noted, adding that unsubstantiated claims of widespread problems can undermine public trust in elections, particularly in states with less experience voting by mail.
“It’s all voters have to rely on — this kind of secondhand information from party leaders or interest groups,” he said. “So to the degree they’re raising concerns about the system being vulnerable to tampering, it’s likely to lower confidence.”
Several residents at Allanza at The Lakes, a large apartment complex in west Las Vegas where discarded ballots had been spotted, expressed anxiety this week about the security of voting by mail in the upcoming primary.
Christine Janicki, a 59-year-old veterinarian, said that earlier this month she noticed a pile of ballots in the mailbox area that went unclaimed for days.
“It really angers me to see it, because this is the type of thing that’s going to diminish [the legitimacy] of mail-in voting,” said Janicki, a registered Democrat who said she plans to take her ballot to the post office rather than leave it to be picked up.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea, but it needs to be perfected,” she said. “Because right now, it’s too easy for these ballots to get into the wrong hands where somebody can say, ‘Well, I think I’m going to mail in 50 of these.’ ”
Election security experts say many states have safeguards in place to prevent such tampering, including signature match rules or other forms of identity verification and tracking numbers that allow voters to follow the movement of their ballots through the mail.
Extensive security measures are in place in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, which already conduct their elections exclusively by mail.
In Washington state, officials announced this month that they found just 142 cases of suspected fraudulent voting during the 2018 general election, a tiny fraction of the roughly 3.2 million ballots cast.
Officials in other states that have ramped up mail voting this year have also increased their vigilance about potential ballot-tampering.
One alleged fraud attempt in West Virginia was prevented this month by a clerk in Pendleton County, who noticed what appeared to be alterations to a small number of absentee ballot forms, including five on which the ballot choice was changed from “Democrat” to “Republican,” according to federal court documents.
The clerk knew some of the voters were not Republicans, and called to verify whether they had requested GOP ballots. This week, a local mail carrier was charged with attempted election fraud in the case.
West Virginia, which sent absentee ballot applications to all voters in advance of its June primary, is among nearly 30 states that have sought to lower barriers to voting by mail during the pandemic. More than 40 million people now have the temporary right to cast an absentee ballot for this year’s midyear contests.
California had already been moving toward widespread vote-by-mail before Newsom’s order about the general election, with more than 70 percent of ballots in the March primary submitted absentee. County officials have access to a centralized voter registration database, which helps ensure their rolls are up-to-date and verifies mail-in ballots using a signature-match system.
State officials said attacks on their voting system by Trump and the GOP are about politics, not election security.
“Trump’s war on voting rights continues,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla tweeted Tuesday. “His lies and conspiracy theories only serve to undermine vote by mail in order to suppress the vote.”
In Nevada, Cegavske announced in March that the state would conduct the June primary entirely by mail and send ballots to all registered voters, saying she and the state’s 17 county election officials concluded it was “the best option” because of the pandemic.
But the plan became a target for Trump, who in recent weeks has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims about the dangers of mail-in voting.
“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State,” Trump tweeted on May 20.
Cegavske’s office responded by touting the “established processes and procedures in place for safe and secure mail-in voting” in Nevada and pointing to a ruling by a federal judge in Reno that affirmed her authority to change the way voting is conducted.
Under Cegavske’s plan, only active registered voters in Nevada would have received ballots in the mail, and each county would have been required to open only one in-person polling place to assist voters and provide same-day registration.
Democrats warned that could lead to massive lines in Clark County, home to the majority of Nevada’s population, and sued Cegavske and county officials seeking more in-person voting locations and other changes.
“Expanding voting by mail is necessary to protect the right to vote during the coronavirus pandemic, but it must be paired with meaningful opportunities to vote safely in person and include various safeguards to prevent disenfranchisement of voters,” the lawsuit stated.
In response, Clark County Registrar of Voters Joseph P. Gloria announced several changes to his election plan. Inactive as well as active voters would receive ballots in the mail, which Democrats argued was required under state law.
A spokesman for the county said signature matching will be used to verify mail ballots before they are counted. In cases in which a signature does not match or there is no signature, officials will attempt to contact voters to confirm they completed the ballot by providing identifying information and signing an oath.
Democratic officials said that sending ballots to all registered voters was necessary to make sure that those who vote irregularly are not disenfranchised. Donna West, chairwoman of the Clark County Democratic Party, said that tens of thousands of previously inactive voters in Nevada ended up casting ballots in 2016.
“To disregard inactive voters is, to me, to suppress the vote,” West said. “Our history here in Nevada is that our people with an inactive status do turn out, especially in presidential election years.”
David Sajdak, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, said that while he supported a shift to voting by mail for the primary to protect voters’ health, he thought Gloria’s decision to send ballots to inactive voters was a mistake.
“It is wrought with potential fraud,” he said.
Republicans have seized on anecdotes about discarded ballots, pointing to examples from a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal story that was cited in the party’s lawsuit in California. Trump retweeted a photo on May 12 that appeared to show a pile of ballots that had not been placed in individual mailboxes.
Sajdak said some of his concerns about fraud were lessened when the state of Nevada hired an outside firm that specializes in signature matching to work with counties for the primary.
“It puts some independence on it, so that really tightened up some of the fraud [risk],” he said.
But Sajdak also accused Democrats of playing politics with the vote.
“The majority of the Democratic voters are in Clark County . . . so again, more proof that all they care about is an unequal playing field,” he said.
Gloria, who referred questions to a county spokesman, has defended the county’s election security procedures.
“It’s very important to point out to all voters that mail ballots are not brand new to Clark County,” he said in a virtual town hall meeting this month. “We’ve had several steps in place for many years to verify the identity of the voter when the ballot is received in our office. . . . It’s a good process here in Clark County.”
Matt Jacob in Las Vegas contributed to this report.