How We Can Mend Nevada’s Dysfunctional Elections

Kevin Dietrich

Why do Nevada elections take so long? It’s a question that pops up every two years, which happens to coincide with key elections in the state.

The New York Times, Associated Press and France’s Le Monde were among media outlets asking that question in 2022; and USA Today and The Guardian, a United Kingdom newspaper, raised the issue in 2020.

The short answer as to why it takes so long to count ballots in Nevada is because we allow it:

  • Mail-in ballots, sent to every registered voter, slow the process as the state allows four days after the election for completed ballots to reach authorities;
  • There’s the inevitable confusion that comes with hundreds of thousands of ballots arriving by mail during a brief period;
  • Election officials have up to six days to “cure” ballot errors, such as mismatched signatures; and
  • Officials have nine days to finish counting and submit a report to the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office.

States like Nevada that employ universal mail-in balloting tend to sacrifice speedy tabulation in hopes of eking out a bit of extra convenience for last-minute voters, as Nevada Policy pointed out in its recent report on election integrity, titled Efficient, Timely and Reliable: A Framework for Election Law in Nevada.

“If Nevada wants to return prompt results while giving election staff and volunteers the best chance to do their jobs well, it must break from this pattern,” wrote Walter Olson, the author of Efficient, Timely and Reliable.

That it regularly takes Nevada several days to finish counting ballots in all races has done little to smooth already roiled political waters. Over the past two-plus decades, at both state and national levels, distrust of the electoral process has increased. This involves not only election outcomes, but also significant criticism of election administrators, even on matters once seen as mundane.

The opportunity for balloting shenanigans increases the longer it takes to tally results, it is claimed. Significant fraud hasn’t been proven, but that hasn’t prevented some from believing the fix is in.

Many of the current issues Nevada is grappling with in terms of election tabulation difficulties can be traced to 2020, when the legislature completely revamped how elections are held, including approving universal mail-in balloting for the state’s nearly 2 million registered voters.

The dramatic changes introduced that year amid the Covid lockdown were touted as temporary. However, lawmakers made the changes permanent just a year later.

In the 2020 election, the first in Nevada under universal mail-in balloting, nearly 15 percent of the state’s vote was not reported until after election night – and it took three days for the state to report 100 percent of the vote, according to the Associated Press.

During the 2022 election, some 70,000 ballots were still uncounted three days following the election, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

As the publication noted, election officials had their hands tied by state law, which required them to keep counting mail ballots postmarked by Election Day through the Saturday after the election.

Giving voters unnecessarily long periods in which to return ballots means some voters will take an unnecessarily long period to get their ballots back to officials. This contributes to a last-minute crunch, which is likely to distract from smooth operation and perhaps contribute to hasty errors.

And even with the extended period, some voters still managed to drop the ball. In 2022, there were nearly 5,000 ballots in Clark County alone received after the deadline, which meant they weren’t counted.

Also, state law prevented officials from counting provisional ballots cast on voting machines – more than 5,500 in Clark County in 2022 – until state election officials provided a provisional report the week after the election, the Gazette-Journal reported.

As the Associated Press noted in 2022, election authorities in Clark and Washoe counties warned ahead of time that processing all ballots would take considerable time.

They were right, and it was days before many key races were called:

  • In Nevada’s U.S. Senate race, it took nearly a week before Catherine Cortz Masto was declared the winner over Adam Laxalt;
  • The governor’s race wasn’t decided until three days after the election; and
  • It took three days for U.S. House of Representative winners to be determined.

Speedy reporting of election results is a hallmark of good election practice, as Nevada Policy wrote in Efficient, Timely and Reliable.

“Without quick results, as we have recently witnessed, the atmosphere is conducive to rumor and misinformation. Slow reporting of results comes at a real cost,” author Walter Olson wrote.

If Nevada wants to improve its vote-counting prowess, it’s going to have to change the way it does things. During Gov. Joe Lombardo’s first State of the State address, given last year, he said all mail-in ballots should be received by the time polls close on Election Day.

“Nevada created universal mail-in ballots as a response to COVID,” Lombardo added. “With the pandemic behind us, this expensive process is simply unnecessary.”

Lombardo said that it could cost up to $11 million in future budgets to continue the universal mail-in system.

Unfortunately, Democrats in the state assembly and senate declined to consider the issue, instead relying on tired cliches about how improving elections was nothing more than a bid to disenfranchise citizens.

“I’m not interested in having a conversation about how we’re going to strip away people’s right to vote,” said State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D- Las Vegas, after Lombardo’s suggestion.

Nevada’s biennial legislature won’t meet again until 2025. That means the state is almost certainly looking at another contentious election period this fall. Given that 2024 is a presidential election year, we can expect long waits for results, fraud accusations and more unwanted attention from national and international media.

As Efficient, Timely and Reliable explains, it doesn’t have to be this way. But repairing our system will require substantive changes in how we manage elections.

The question going forward is, do Nevada leaders want improvement, or are they happy with how things are at present?


Sign Up To Get Your Free Copy of Nevada Policy’s New Report on Election Integrity

Kevin Dietrich

Kevin Dietrich

Director of Mainstream Media

Kevin Dietrich joined Nevada Policy in 2022 and currently serves as the Director of Mainstream Media.

He has more than 20 years of experience in communications, including serving as the director of communications and marketing for the South Carolina Bankers Association, working as a speechwriter for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and assisting with internal communications for CVS Caremark.

Kevin graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in Journalism and a minor in History. A fifth-generation Californian, he spent a decade as a journalist, working for newspapers in Florida, New York, New Hampshire and South Carolina.