As voter restrictions swirl nationwide, Nevada’s doing OK — for now
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A state agency purges thousands of voters from eligible lists in Florida. A national firm is suspended from registering voters in five key states, including Nevada, after allegations of registration fraud. In Pennsylvania, the state government is fighting in court to require an official identification card for voting, which could make more than 700,000 voters ineligible.
In Ohio and other states, conservative officials work to limit early voting, especially in areas dominated by traditionally Democratic-leaning constituencies. And everywhere, people are confused about when they can vote and what they need to cast a ballot.
Like casino gambling, cage-match brawling and the global foreclosure crisis, much of the confusion, court fighting and new restrictions can be traced back to our humble city and great state. One can easily find the place where much of the doubt and confusion was born: a modest office off the sprawling parking lot of the aging International Commercial Center on East Sahara, a stone’s throw from some of Las Vegas’ best Thai restaurants.
At that site in 2008, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now marshaled canvassers to go out to the community and register voters, especially low-income and minority voters. The organization paid its canvassers for completed registrations and included a bonus system — cleverly dubbed “21” or “blackjack” because everything in Vegas is about gambling — for those who brought back more than 20 registrations each day.
ACORN’s financially motivated canvassers promptly brought back many completed registration forms, reportedly including the entire starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys, which was not, in fact, playing in Las Vegas. Unfortunately for ACORN, paying for registration forms (as opposed to paying a straight hourly rate to those doing the registering) is a felony in Nevada. Two ACORN organizers were convicted.
I worked as communications director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada during the period of ACORN’s registration violations, prosecution and convictions. PLAN worked (and still works) to register similar constituencies. But PLAN never paid organizers on a per-form system or instituted any quota. The general reaction by progressive organizers at the time was, “What in the world was ACORN thinking?”
It is worth noting that ACORN managers actually self-reported on the irregular registration forms to state and local officials, but under state law, they still had to submit the filled-out forms. And ACORN’s missteps did not, and could not, lead to voter fraud. No one from the Dallas Cowboys was planning to visit Las Vegas to sneak in a few extra votes for Barack Obama. This was registration fraud — a felony — but it’s hard to see how it could ultimately affect the outcome of an election.
But the scandal, prosecuted by Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, both Democrats, fed a growing conservative narrative that demanded more restrictions on the ability to register and vote. The restrictions proposed in 41 states, including Nevada, disproportionately affect urban minority communities, college students and the disabled — all constituencies that often lean towards the Democrats. And at least 19 states have passed restrictions, requiring official identification forms, limiting early voting times and place, and other moves.
Frisky election business isn’t confined to the lefties, not in Nevada.
Longtime Republican operative Nathan Sproul’s voter-registration companies have been accused of altering or destroying registration forms from Democrats in battleground states this year, and problems with the registration forms — and, shades of ACORN, including the registration of fictitious personages, among them Mickey Mouse — led the Republican Party to end its registration drives early this year in five hotly contested states, including Nevada. That’s an extraordinary step to take when every vote counts.
But Sproul’s name and companies under various names have been implicated in serious irregularities before. In 2004, a former employee of one of Sproul’s companies alleged that he had instructed his voter-registration canvassers to destroy Democratic or nonpartisan registration cards. According to KLAS investigative reporter and CityLife columnist George Knapp, ex-employees even produced examples of ripped-up registration forms. (An investigation by the secretary of state did not result in any charges.) Similar allegations have dogged the Republican’s companies in other states.
This year, again in Nevada, a woman filed a complaint against a Sproul-connected company registering voters in Henderson, alleging destruction of a Democratic registration form by another woman.
Although the Republican national and state-level organizations announced that they have ended their association with Sproul’s companies in five states, Brad Friedman reported on the progressive site Salon last week that the operative continues to work for the GOP in at least 10 other states.
Destroying a registration form is not only a felony — in fact, in Nevada, any collected registration form has to be turned into the local elections department within 30 days — but unlike simply inventing a fictitious person, the practice could lead to real impacts on Election Day. People who have registered, may even have a receipt, would be turned away from their polling place. They would have no vote.
“If someone destroys your voter registration form, they’ve taken away one of your most precious rights as a citizen. And there’s nothing you can do. You’re just screwed,” says Laura Martin, PLAN’s communications director.
Secretary of State Miller says he is concerned about any allegations of destroyed forms, and he has created a special task force to investigate and potentially prosecute any illegal voter registration conduct. But he and Clark County Elections Department Manager Larry Lomax say that aside from the Henderson allegation, voter registration appears to be going well.
“There are always a handful of complaints,” Lomax said last week. “But it’s nothing like it was in 2008. Overall, it’s very clean.” He says his office’s biggest problem is actually a deluge of new registrations.
But the biggest test for Nevada may be yet to come.
True the Vote, a Houston, Texas-based nonpartisan group, claims that it has evidence of massive voter fraud nationally, and says it is training legions of volunteers to put a stop to it. The group’s website says it comes from the experience of a Houston Tea Party organization, the King Street Patriots, in the 2008 election, and claims that ACORN submitted 23,000 invalid voter registration forms in that election.
In 2010, the activities of the organization’s poll-watchers prompted 56 complaints by voters in the Houston area. Now the group claims to have operatives in at least 30 states.
Representatives from the organization, contacted by e-mail, did not reply to requests for an interview. According to True the Vote’s website, about 40 people in Nevada have signed up to challenge would-be fraudulent voters. Liberal-leaning groups charge that the organization is targeting largely minority voting precincts to intimidate voters, a charge that True the Vote denies on its website.
How the group would challenge would-be voters in Nevada is unclear. In this state, according to Miller, the only person who can challenge a voter is another voter from the same precinct who has direct knowledge that the would-be fraudulent voter is not eligible. Making a fraudulent challenge about a voter is a felony.
Miller said last week that he has provided the organization with the laws regarding voting challenges in Nevada.
But unions and liberal-leaning nonprofits are concerned that the organization or allies could make voting on Nov. 6 a headache. Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said last week that the unions and progressive nonprofits are ready to push back if necessary. While noting that voters could avoid Election Day hassles by voting early, starting Oct. 20, he said the unions will have a legal team ready to respond to any concerns anywhere in the state.
“We will be at every polling place,” Thompson said. “Historically it’s been an issue in minority precincts, but it could happen anywhere.”