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Democracy in
Nevada: At Risk

by NPRI Staff

he 1998 election in Nevada was notable for many reasons—putting a Republican in the governor’s mansion for the first time in 16 years, the election of women to half the statewide offices, one of the closest U.S. Senate elections in state history—but most especially for the problems it highlighted in the election process itself. After all, even more important than the results of one particular election is whether the underlying game is rigged.

Washoe County’s problems with mailed ballots are just the most obvious expression of a faulty voting process in Nevada—one which led that county’s commission to create a special board to look into the recent glitches. But Washoe’s problems are not unique, nor merely limited to badly trimmed mail ballots. The lapses began well before the election and continued through election day.

Early voting has been highly touted as a reform in Nevada. Part of the argument for it has been lack of voter participation in recent years. Making the process of voting more open and accessible is regarded as important in getting more people to cast ballots. For the same reasons, mail voting has found widespread acceptance in Nevada. In the wrong hands, however, these attempts to enhance participation can have an unwelcome result—fraud.

Sure enough, a check the Nevada Policy Research Institute conducted of registered Nevadans following the most recent election turned up suspicious registration and voting activity. Data current to three days before the election suggests that a number of individuals in Clark County took advantage of both early voting and mail voting. Records from Clark County indicate 27 people were not content to use just one or the other means but voted at early voting centers and also by mail. No check has yet been made to determine how many of these, if any, also voted at the polls on election day.

Since the information was not available for the entire early voting period it seems safe to assume that these 27 voters were joined by others who also may have voted more than once. In fact, another 1,900 individuals in Clark County who had requested mail ballots but had not returned them by October 30 also used early voting. Doubtless most of these people simply procrastinated until the last minute about returning their mail ballots and instead eventually chose to go to an early voting location. But some may also have returned their mail ballots in the final days before the election in addition to voting at early-vote locations.

NPRI’s cursory check also found hundreds of duplicate registrations. The registration lists in Clark and Washoe counties show over 700 duplicate records for people with the same first and last name and date of birth, some at the same address, but many also at different addresses and different polling locations. This may be just a lapse from good data management, but until a check of these individuals shows they did not vote under their different registrations, another cloud will hang over elections in Nevada.

The National Voter Registration Act, better known as "Motor Voter," has opened the door rather wide for the possibility of voter fraud. The arguably laudable objective of Motor Voter was to increase voter registration by making the process easier and therefore to increase turnout on election day. After all, in a democracy the participation of the people is necessary to ensure self government. The aims, however, have not been met—today even fewer people than before actually exercise their franchise.

Making registration easier has also made fraud easier. The key provision of Motor Voter that facilitates fraud is the requirement that voter registrars place the name of an individual who registers by mail on the voter rolls without an initial check for proof of identity. Supposedly a person who registers in this manner is required to vote in person for the first time, but given the lapses seen in other areas of the voting process, it is doubtful that this requirement is actually being met. In other states mail registration has led to family pets being counted among the electorate. But it has also been associated with massive registration of ineligible people, as happened in southern California in a 1996 congressional election. Rep. Robert Dornan was ousted from his seat possibly at the hands of hundreds of non-citizens registered by organized interests.

Because so many people may have used these voter reforms to engage in illegal activity, Nevada citizens deserve answers to questions about the integrity of the voting process in this state. Why are there apparently no safeguards in place to keep people from voting three times in an election—once early, once by mail, and once on election day? Why are there duplicate registrations for the same people?

These problems are easy to identify. What is less obvious is fraudulent registration of ineligible individuals or for that matter fictitious people. Because mail registration today makes fraud so easy, voter registrars must be increasingly vigilant to ensure the integrity of elections.

NPRI will continue to investigate the possibility of voter fraud in the 1998 election to answer these and other questions and will report its findings later this year. NJ


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