By: Charles Truxillo
On March 21, 2017, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed the state’s effort to establish an automatic voter registration system through the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. If enacted, the the DMV’s voter registration would convert to a compulsory system rather than its current volunteer-based model. After a partisan split, the Governor sided with state Republicans and blocked the bill. The Governor’s veto is not final, as the initiative will now move to a statewide vote in the 2018 election.
Automatic voter registration refers to a system where a state-administered service automatically files an application to vote for all of its users, most commonly through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Ten states plus the District of Columbia have established some form of automated registration, all of which have been enacted within the past three years. If approved, the Nevada DMV would be required to register any and all individuals seeking DMV services, provided that the individual does not expressly opt out through written consent.
Initiative Petition No. 1 (“IP1”) was first introduced to the Nevada legislature on February 6, 2017, by iVote, a D.C. based nonprofit specializing in voter rights. The underlying aim of the petition is to increase voter registration by making the process as simple as possible. The more people registered to vote means more people can vote come election day. This strategy to use the DMV as an automatic registration is a reaction Oregon’s success after becoming the first state to use such a system back in 2015.
Although the Governor expressed sentiment for this goal in his, his concerns for voter protection proved to be too much for this petition to earn his support:
“IP1 advances a worthy goal by encouraging more eligible Nevadans to register to vote. However, such a result must partner with sound policy. IP1 fails this test because it extinguishes a fundamental, individual choice – the right of eligible voters to decide for themselves whether they desire to apply to register to vote… Moreover, if IP1 became law, it would create an unnecessary risk that people who are not qualified voters may unintentionally apply to vote, subjecting them to possible criminal prosecution, fines, and other legal action.”
His chief concern is that, by changing the DMV’s registration to an opt-out rather than and opt-in system, the citizen would lose a layer of security against accidental criminal liability. The state identifies an application to vote by a nonqualified individual as a criminal offense with a max punishment of a $20,000 fine. Furthermore, Nevada Code NRS 293.5045(1)(c) blocks DMV employees from accessing citizen files to determine voter qualification. Under IP1, the lack of refusal is seen as consent to apply to vote. The end result, the Governor fears, would be that IP1’s passage would make it much simpler for citizens who are either ignorant of the process or of their qualification status to unintentionally break the law; therefore,presenting a greater risk of criminal liability that is simply not present in the state’s current opt-in system.
As part of the State’s initiative process, the Governor does not have the final say on IP1, the citizens do. If IP1 gains enough supporters in the 2018 election, then Nevada will become the eleventh state to implement automatic voter registration despite the Governor’s opposition.
Although the vote is months away, at present, the supporters of IP1 have the advantage. IP1 followed a partisan vote while in the Nevada legislature with Democratic support slightly outnumbering Republican opposition 27 to 15 in the General Assembly and 12 to 9 in the State Senate. Assuming that vote will follow a similar partisan split, Nevada Democrats would hold a slight advantage with 10% more active registered voters than the Republicans (as reported by the Nevada’s Secretary of State’s August report).
It is also important to note that this will be decided in a midterm election, meaning that voter participation may be low. Such low turnout will make it much harder to for the Republican opposition to gain enough votes to meet the simple majority required to block IP1. This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that the opposition has no clear organization against IP1 with $0 raised in campaign finance. Supporters of IP1, on the other hand, have formed the Nevada Election Administration Committee, a PAC dedicated to campaigning for the passage of IP1 and have raised over $300,000 in campaign contributions.
The initiative campaign is still young and with relatively slim margins, so anything could happen. But as it stands now, Nevada is predicted establish its first voter registration system.