By Sean Golonka, The Nevada Independent, September 26, 2023
Since the 2020 election, top election officials in 11 of 17 Nevada counties have left office — a mark that places Nevada second in the West for turnover among election administrators.
That rate of replacement was highlighted by Issue One, a national political reform group that describes itself as “crosspartisan,” in a new report released Tuesday examining the record pace of local election officials departing office in the wake of the tumultuous 2020 election.
Only Arizona, where 80 percent of counties have seen a new top election official since November 2020, recorded a higher rate than Nevada among 11 Western states analyzed in the report. While Nevada’s rate of turnover among its 17 counties was 59 percent at the time the report was compiled, that number has since risen to 65 percent after Elko County Clerk Kristine Jakeman announced that she would retire in October.
The exodus has resulted in the loss of decades’ worth of experience running elections across the state. Amid turnover in a majority of the state’s counties including populous Clark and Washoe counties, 98 percent of Nevadans are set to see their 2024 elections administered by someone who wasn’t on the job in 2020.
Across the 11 states, “Issue One found that these officials took with them more than 1,800 years of combined experience,” the report’s authors wrote.
The state’s clerks — and registrars in Nevada’s two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe — are responsible for administering each county’s elections, including mail and in-person voting, extensive pre- and post-election testing and security controls, and maintaining voter lists.
Last year, The Nevada Independent spoke with several election officials throughout the state who had already left or planned to leave their jobs. They expressed frustration with increasing public pressures amid a surge in false voter fraud claims fomented by former President Donald Trump, as well as the rising demands of their roles following the implementation of more comprehensive election procedures in recent years, including universal mail voting.
Throughout Nevada’s rural counties, clerks typically take on more than one role, in many cases also serving as their county’s recorder or treasurer. Many of those leaving their positions have cited a desire to spend more time with their families.
In Nevada, the counties that have seen turnover since the 2020 election are: Clark, Douglas, Elko, Eureka, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Storey, Washoe and Carson City.
The report also details the “onslaught of threats, harassment, conspiracy theories and increased work loads” that these officials have faced. That includes former Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula, who faced repeated harassment. In one instance, she received a threat stating, “Count the votes as if your life depends on it because it does.”
Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar, a Democrat, described election workers as the “unsung heroes of our democracy” and said providing them with a secure environment is key.
“Nobody wants to go to a job where they’re afraid, or they’re going to be harassed or intimidated on a regular basis,” Aguilar said in an interview.
The mass exodus of election officials can be costly to taxpayers, according to the Issue One report. It takes time to train new staff on the proper procedures for running elections.
“Think of institutional knowledge as a savings account,” Julie Wise, elections director of King County, Washington, said in the report. “When a savings account has too little in it, emergencies become much more difficult to handle. Lost institutional knowledge increases the likelihood of human error. Even when an organization has well-documented procedures, new problems and questions arise.”
Still, Aguilar noted that some of the state’s new clerks come with years of experience in helping run elections, such as Clark County Registrar Lorena Portillo, who had worked in the county elections department for 25 years prior to her appointment earlier this year.
“We don’t want to lose that talent. We don’t want to lose that experience because it brings efficiency,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re also bringing on really capable individuals who can look at the issues, can look at the processes and come up with different ideas and different solutions to some of the challenges.”
He added that the state’s adoption of an election procedures manual and the transition to a new election management system (called VREMS) would help with communication among election officials.
The Issue One report also calls for “strengthening protections and fully funding our critical elections infrastructure.” Aguilar has made increasing protections for election workers a priority, pushing this year for the passage of SB406, a bill that raises criminal penalties for threats or harassment against election workers.
“We need to create safe environments for these people to be able to flourish,” Aguilar said.