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Nevada has a plan to expand electronic voting. That concerns election security experts

A woman in a dark suit standing in a room
Andrea Martinez, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Walker River reservation in Nev., Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
(Sait Serkan Gurbuz / Associated Press)
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Members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe have watched the boundaries of their land recede over time, along with the waters of the lake that are central to their identity.

Not wanting to cede their voice, tribal leaders have been making a push for expanded voting rights. That effort includes filing a lawsuit on behalf of all Nevada tribes seeking polling places on tribal lands and access to early voting.

“Tribes shouldn’t have to keep filing lawsuits just to vote on their own lands,” said Elveda Martinez, 65, a tribal member and longtime voting advocate. “It should be more accessible.”

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The state has now granted the Walker River Paiutes and other tribes in Nevada a new right that advocates hope will greatly expand voting access for a community that gained U.S. citizenship only a century ago. Voting on reservations across the country has historically been difficult, with tribal voters sometimes having to travel long distances to their polling place.

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The new process — the ability to cast ballots electronically — has the potential to boost turnout among all tribes in Nevada. But what some see as a small measure of justice to equalize voting rights raises security concerns for others, with implications far beyond Nevada’s 28 tribal communities as the nation braces for what is expected to be another close and contentious presidential election in November.

Under the plan, tribal members in Nevada who live on a reservation or colony can receive a ballot electronically through an online system set up by the state and then return it by email, through an online portal or by fax. Experts warn that such a system carries risks of ballots being intercepted or manipulated and should be used sparingly, if at all.

“At this point in the United States, it’s a relatively small number of ballots that are coming through that way,” said Larry Norden, an election expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we should be very concerned — both from actual security risks but also from a public confidence point of view — about expanding this.”

While electronic voting may be limited, it’s available across much of the country to specific groups of voters. Over 30 states allow certain voters to return their ballots either by fax, email or an online portal, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures and Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that studies state voting systems.

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In most cases, electronic ballot return is available only to U.S. military and overseas voters. But it’s been expanded in recent years to include voters with disabilities in a dozen states. Nevada is believed to be the first to add tribes.

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But the system comes with risks.

In a 2020 memo to election officials, the FBI and other federal agencies assessed the risk of sending ballots electronically to be low, but allowing those ballots to be returned electronically was high.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is charged with helping protect the nation’s election systems, redistributed the memo, saying they wanted to ensure state officials and policymakers were “fully informed of risks” associated with electronic ballot return.

Kim Wyman, the former top election official in Washington state, initially supported electronic voting as a military spouse, but said she grew wary after taking over as secretary of state. At one point, she unsuccessfully asked state lawmakers to repeal it.

“Election officials are in a hard spot because they want to provide accessibility and they want to make sure that every eligible American has a right to participate in an election,” Wyman said. “But they have to do it in a way where they’re also securing those ballots and making sure that that voter’s ballot is counted the way the voter cast it.”

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Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar said he knows the process carries risks, but sees everything related to elections as having some risk.

He said the state’s electronic ballot return system was designed by the state with security measures intended to verify eligibility, authenticate voters and their ballots, and ensure secure communications. There are steps to ensure voters are not casting multiple ballots, and the system undergoes regular security reviews and updates.

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“I’m confident in our system,” Aguilar said.

Ramona Coker, who is blind, is among those who use the system. She said she no longer needs help to vote and can cast a ballot on her phone, which is equipped with screen-reading technology allowing her to follow audio prompts to make her selections.

“It feels very American. It feels like you have done your part and no one else has had an influence in that,” said Coker, who works for a Reno-area nonprofit.

States led by both Democrats and Republicans have authorized electronic ballot returns, with varying rules. Alaska, California, Florida and Oklahoma limit the process to military and overseas voters and only permit electronic returns by fax. In Texas, astronauts can use an online portal to cast their ballots.

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But not all states have embraced it. In Minnesota, officials considered it but ultimately decided against it.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has long had its own polling location, something other tribes in the state have not. However, some tribal members have not always seen the point in voting.

“Because of the historical abuses our people have faced, we were very timid to even take part in voting or elections,” tribal Chair Andrea Martinez said. “For many years, we didn’t feel like our voice even mattered.”

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The prospect of casting ballots electronically is a step Martinez and other tribal leaders welcome as a way to engage more voters. Courtney Quintero, a tribal member and chair of the board overseeing tribal elections, said she planned to use the new voting system once she learned more about it, but acknowledged others may be hesitant.

“Trust is a big thing with our community,” she said.

Cassidy writes for the Associated Press.

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