By Elizabeth DePatie
This year, Nevadans will have to answer “yes” or “no” to Question 4—a ballot initiative that seeks to enshrine specific voter protections in Nevada’s state constitution. Collectively, these rights are referred to as the Voters’ Bill of Rights, and they were added to Nevada state law in 2002. The amendment would add these rights to Nevada’s state constitution, thus preventing future legislatures from easily overturning or modifying Nevadans right to vote in the future.
Arguments against the amendment largely rest on the idea that the amendment is unnecessary and could be burdensome as voting technology improves. There are concerns that by codifying these rights in the state constitution, it will be harder to adapt laws going further as voting conditions continue to change. The right to vote in Nevada is protected by statute and by amendments to the United States Constitution; opponents argue this is “a solution in search of a problem.”
While it is true that voters’ rights are guaranteed in state statute, statutes can be overturned in a legislative session. Further, Question 4 highlights upheavals and upsets to voting rights in the U.S. in the past ten years. Among other safeguards, the amendment would ban voter intimidation and coercion, and protect equal access to the ballot-banning discrimination based on race, age, disability, military service, employment, or overseas residence. This specific provision, banning discrimination based on race, has been protected federally by the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—an act that has been slowly dismantled in the past decade.
The VRA has a series of protections against discrimination on the basis of race, but those protections have been made ineffective over the years. Section 5 of the VRA—which required certain states to get preclearance before changing their voting laws to ensure they were not racially discriminatory—was made impotent by a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in 2013. In the years since, voting right activists have turned to section 2 of the VRA, which explicitly prohibits racially discriminatory voting procedures. However, suits under section 2 have been largely unsuccessful. Further, section 2 does not have any preclearance component; instead, successful challenges to these laws under section 2 must typically wait until the discriminatory law has already had effect. This system can leave discriminatory practices in place for years as litigation drags through the various courts; even if a law is struck down it does nothing to assist the voters affected in the interim.
With the VRA under attack, it falls on states to codify and bolster the voting rights of its people. The Nevada Voters’ Bill of Rights would do just that. In adopting this amendment, Nevada would join forty-nine states who currently have some form of voter protection codified in their state constitution. Despite fears, the text of the amendment does not lend itself to prohibiting changes as election technology advances, it simply protects the rights of voters to a free, fair, and accessible election. The amendment would provide more protections than those granted at the federal level. In addition to its protection against discrimination, the amendment would promote accessible, clear, and fair voting practices. It would ensure that voters are given ballots that clearly identify candidates and how to properly mark the voter’s choice, allows for the correction of spoiled ballots, and guarantees voters can be informed of voting procedures, amongst more. Giving the current trajectory of voting rights at the federal level, adopting such rights into a state constitution is not just admirable, it’s absolutely necessary.