At first glance, AB 321 seems quite simple. It just makes permanent much of what Nevada already did last year with easy vote-by-mail (VBM) access. So why is AB 321 being portrayed as some highly “controversial” bill in the Nevada Legislature?
As uncomfortable as it may feel to revisit last year’s presidential election, the best way to understand the present arguments over AB 321 is to ditch the false conspiracy theories and acknowledge the full reality of what happened in the last election.
First, let’s clear the air one more time on what happened in the 2020 presidential election.
At first glance, AB 321 just seems like standard election legislation that largely maintains the status quo. That’s because this is the best way to describe AB 321: This bill makes permanent several provisions from the 32nd Special Session’s AB 4, and AB 4 built on pre-existing precedent under NRS 293 for “mail-in precincts” and the state’s overall authority to provide broader availability for vote-by-mail.
Even though she opposed last year’s AB 4, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) admitted during testimony to the Nevada Legislature last July that her office found no evidence of “voter fraud” during the June 2020 primary election that she ordered to be near-universal vote-by-mail pre-AB 4. And after the November general election, Cegavske again made clear that her office found no valid reasons to challenge the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election and the legitimacy of the rest of Nevada’s general election results.
Even when we factor in that incredibly close contest in Clark County Commission District C, the discrepancy that was investigated was nowhere near large enough to affect anything else, and Clark County Commissioner Ross Miller ultimately took office in January after lower courts examined the evidence and found no proof of misconduct in the vote count. When we zoom out to the bigger picture here, we can see there’s no nefarious “voter fraud” agenda behind AB 321. So why are Republican legislators still parroting the same mendacious talking points used by former President Donald Trump, his most fervent QAnon devotees, and the far-right militants who attempted to help Trump complete his coup d’etat to overturn the 2020 election results?
So what’s AB 321 actually about?
Again, this bill from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) largely makes permanent the core of 2020’s AB 4 by making permanent the mailing of vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots to active registered voters for every election. AB 321 also has provisions that allow voters to request not to be sent VBM ballots, allow voters to allow someone else to collect and deliver their ballots if they so choose, and revise the process for signature and ballot verification.
In fact, AB 321 calls for the stricter signature verification process and an overall tighter election security protocol that Republican leaders have claimed they wanted. And yet, Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Yerington) fumed in a press release last week that AB 321 “will further degrade the fragile civic trust shared between the three million people that call Nevada home, and will drive us further apart in our alarmingly divergent nation.”
How do democracies die in the 21st century? A coordinated legislative assault like this one from one of two major US parties is one way. https://t.co/bA3gmoT65O
— Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat) April 1, 2021
One can say Republican legislators are understandably upset that their Democratic colleagues are set to pass this and other voting rights bills while refusing to even schedule hearings for Republican-backed ballot restriction bills, yet we don’t see Nevada Republican leaders like Robin Titus calling on her fellow Republicans in states like Arizona and Georgia to be more bipartisan. In fact, Georgia Republicans are now contradicting their own past complaints about “cancel culture” by threatening to revoke tax subsidies for Delta Air Lines due to their executives’ (fairly lukewarm) complaints about Georgia’s new anti-voting law that puts VBM out of reach for more voters and criminalizes volunteers providing food and drinks to voters who wait in line. Meanwhile in Arizona, Republican legislators there have embarked on an increasingly bizarre feud with the Republican-majority Maricopa County Board of Supervisors over their effort to continually relitigate the Arizona election results that the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress both accepted as legally valid.
So long story short, Republicans’ complaints with AB 321 have nothing to do with “concerns about the hyperpartisan process” or “concerns about election security”. This is all about Donald Trump losing the 2020 election, and it’s about Republican Party leaders increasingly choosing to pursue restrictions to ballot access that essentially let them choose the voters they want to participate instead of simply trying to appeal to more voters. Meanwhile, Nevada Republican leaders are simply upset that the Democrats who hold majorities in our Legislature are moving in the opposite direction in improving ballot access.
Why should we use and trust universal vote-by-mail?
While some Republicans make hay of California’s recent transition to universal VBM, California began to offer “no excuse absentee voting” in 1978, and California voters across the partisan and ideological spectrums have embraced VBM as a safe and convenient way to vote ever since. Meanwhile, Oregon became the first state to practice permanent universal VBM after voters overwhelmingly approved a universal VBM ballot initiative in 1998. Following Oregon, Washington State moved to universal VBM in 2011, then Colorado adopted universal VBM in 2013, then Utah transitioned to universal VBM from 2013 to 2020.
Before anyone dismisses Oregon’s VBM system as “typical blue state stuff”, Oregon’s VBM ballot initiative passed with just over 69% support in 1998, meaning that a large contingent of Republican voters supported the move to universal VBM. In Washington State, their Republican Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, has not only dutifully implemented her state’s universal VBM law, but she and her office have also made efforts to explain and defend Washington’s election system against false claims of “fraud”. In Colorado some Republican legislators may now be endorsing repeal of their state’s landmark voting rights laws, but election experts like former Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R) have made clear that Colorado’s VBM system is intricately designed to ensure secure elections. And in the traditionally “ruby red state” of Utah, local election officials and even Governor Spencer Cox (R) have defended their VBM system as safe and fair.
The reason why universal VBM states tend to have higher voter turnout than the national average doesn’t involve any nefarious QAnon-worthy “voter fraud” conspiracy. Rather, it’s the simple matter of more people voting when the state erects fewer barriers and restrictions to the ballot.
Why are these Republican legislators playing with QAnon’s firestorm?
"It's been two months since there was a violent attack on the Capitol resulting in deaths. The people at the top in this mafia cohort surrounding Trump — Stone, Bannon, Flynn, etc — are still not being prosecuted for their role in it." — @gaslitnation https://t.co/m3LBvzSdqd
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) March 17, 2021
During a joint legislative operations and elections hearing in February, State Senator Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) insisted that she did “not want to undermine democracy or spread false information”, yet she went ahead and repeated false claims about “dead people voting” that Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria debunked at that very hearing. And as we discussed earlier, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) has also repeatedly debunked this and other “voter fraud” lies.
As we’ve often investigated and discussed, this disinformation has become commonplace in QAnon circles, and Trump-aligned operatives weaponized this disinformation as they prepared for January 6. Why on earth would a State Senator who herself had a very close election contest and likely benefited from Nevada’s recent voting rights reforms believe and repeat the bizarre lies rooted in fantastical visions from disgraced operatives like Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and 8chan/8kun administrator Ron Watkins over Nevada’s own election experts? (Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for a future edition of “This Week in Corona Scams” where we finish our review of HBO’s QAnon docuseries and examine the Watkins’ role in this rampant spread of disinformation.)
Not only have far-right hardliner legislators like Senator Carrie Buck, Assembly Member Jill Dickman (R-Sparks), and Assembly Member Annie Black (R-Mesquite) publicly endorsed these lies about the 2020 election, but more traditional conservative legislators like Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus use the kind of language that Trump and QAnon loyalists view as validation of these “stolen election” lies. Even legislators who’ve often been considered the most moderate Republicans in the building, such as Senator Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno), have endorsed national Republican Party talking points on “election integrity” that essentially serve as “dog whistles” to the far-right.
Unless and until we get to the point where we can discuss “the ideal democracy of the future”, we need to improve upon the present system we have.
Perhaps in a different time, a different paradigm, and a far different reality, we could bring Americans from across the partisan and ideological spectrums together behind some simple and fair election reforms like moving the election to a weekend, making the election weekend a national holiday, requiring all ballots be offered to voters and cast as hand-marked paper ballots, provide free-to-voters and readily available assistance (like child care and transportation) to make it easier for more people to vote in-person, and mandate a uniform system with the same rules in place across the country. But in our actual reality, there’s basically zero potential for any broad agreement on a federal constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention that would be needed to pursue these kinds of reforms.
In our actual reality, where we mandate that general elections be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, our election process is generally more restrictive than that of other highly developed democracies. One way we’ve managed to make elections more accessible to more voters is early voting, and in several states VBM was already the preferred option for early voting.
With Americans’ overall confidence in our democracy being the weakest we’ve seen in decades, we should be encouraging more voter participation, not less. AB 321 is simply a bill that mostly makes permanent what we already successfully accomplished last year, and the opposition stems more from one political party’s existential crisis than from any (already debunked) rumors of “fraud”. To see Republican legislators allude to these false “fraud” allegations as reasons to oppose AB 321 speaks to the real “small-d democratic crisis” hiding behind the false claims at the surface.