Judge to rule this week on Nevada’s mail-in primary
RENO — Nevada’s statewide primary is scheduled in June. But what that looks like in a pandemic and how voters cast ballots may be decided in the courts.
A U.S. judge in Reno said Wednesday she expects to decide by the end of week whether to block current plans to conduct the June 9 primary predominantly by mail.
The conflict involves lawsuits at the state and federal level, both major political parties and voters with divergent political views who argue their constitutional rights will be violated if the primary moves forward as planned.
Lawyers for Democrats and conservative voting rights activists are challenging the current plan, but for different reasons.
Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said in announcing plans last month for the mail-in election in response to COVID-19 that she would still allow registered voters to cast ballots in-person during early voting beginning May 23 and on Election Day. But she’s requiring only one polling place in each of Nevada’s 17 counties.
Lawyers for the right-leaning Voters’ Rights Initiative are seeking the federal injunction blocking the existing format. They say it would “require the state to forgo almost all in-person voting” and “all but ensure an election replete with … ballot fraud.”
“The plan alters the nature of Nevada’s election, changing it from an in-person election with absentee ballots received by request to a scheme of mailing mail-in ballots to some, but not all, registered voters and highly restricted walk-in voting options,” according to their lawsuit filed last week.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said Wednesday when she opened a telephonic hearing on the injunction request that current restrictions on in-court appearances “demonstrate the unusual circumstances of our times.”
She granted an expedited hearing schedule because mail-in ballots are scheduled to be sent to voters next week. And she told lawyers Wednesday she wouldn’t accept any supplemental filings after the hearing.
Democrats defend the mail-in approach generally. But they filed suit in state court earlier to block the plan based on concerns there won’t be enough polling places to accommodate in-person voters.
They also argue absentee ballots should be sent to all registered voters, not just those considered “active” because they participated in the last two elections. Inactive voters must specifically request absentee ballots.
Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat responsible for representing Nevada in court, filed briefs in federal court this week defending Cegavske’s plan.
“Recognizing the unprecedented global pandemic, state and local officials came together to work within existing statutory to ensure a fair Nevada primary election while minimizing health risks to its voters,” Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Zunino wrote on his behalf.
Plaintiffs seeking the U.S. injunction include Terresa Monroe-Hamilton, a conservative blogger who maintains COVID-19 is “an act of war by China.”
The Democrats’ lawyers “vigorously dispute plaintiffs’ contentions that mail voting is either unconstitutional or likely to result in fraud.” But they agreed in briefs filed Monday the plan doesn’t go far enough to ensure everyone’s rights. They also challenge the prohibition on anyone other than a voter’s family member assisting with mail-in ballots.
The Democrats contend many voters are switching to vote-by-mail for the first time, including those with mobility issues or in remote areas. They cite seniors living in assisted-living facilities and others under orders to stay at home because of COVID-19.
“Without expansive options to vote by mail, many voters will be forced to choose between risking their health to vote in person and participating in the June primary,” they wrote.
The Republican National Committee and Nevada GOP have filed a motion in state court opposing broadening of outside assistance. The GOP said Democrats are trying to force Cegavske to skirt rules protecting the integrity of ballots by allowing “political operatives to show up on voters’ doorsteps to collect ballots.”
A hearing on the state case is scheduled May 7 in Carson City.